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Is Rochester's development meeting everybody's needs?

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This month, Seattle's City Council will consider imposing a new tax on that city's biggest employers. The purpose: to raise money for affordable housing and services for the homeless.

Rochester isn't Seattle, where the growth of companies like Amazon has led to a housing crisis. But Rochester has its own problems with affordable housing, development, and homelessness, as current news stories are making clear.

And over the next few months, our own mayor and City Council will be making decisions about still more proposed development. Maybe now's a good time to think about some bigger, broader issues.

Rochester has been in dire need of development. As suburban sprawl exploded and big industry imploded, the city lost a lot of its tax base. Taxes that had previously paid for teachers, police, firefighters, and important services dropped. At the same time, Rochester's poverty rate grew, leaving the city with bigger needs and less money to meet them.

New development, then, has been welcome, both for its taxes and the jobs it has created. But a lot of the new development has been housing, and a good bit of it has: A) gotten tax subsidies, and B) been designed for middle and upper-income people.

The projects tend to come up one at a time, so they may not always be considered in the context of all of the city's needs.

Next up, for instance, is City Council's decision about Cobbs Hill Village, a group of 1950's-era apartments for seniors. Currently, residents there are paying very low rental rates. The owner of the complex, the non-profit Rochester Management, wants to replace the 60 current apartments with 104 new ones. The apartments will still be for low- and middle-income seniors, but rates in many of the apartments won't be as low as they are now. Current tenants will be able to live in the new apartments at their current rent, but once they leave, rates for all but 20 of those units will increase.

Last week, Mayor Lovely Warren endorsed the project, sending legislation to City Council asking for its approval. Her request is on Council's May 15 agenda.

Rochester has a serious shortage of quality housing classified both as low-income and Affordable, so among other issues, City Council members will have to weigh the addition of Affordable units against the eventual loss of some very low-income units.

Cobbs Hill Village isn't the only low-income housing facing change. DHD Ventures, one of several developers creating market-rate housing downtown, has bought the Cadillac Hotel, which has housed low-income tenants for decades. Its current tenants have been told they have to leave, and while DHD hasn't announced specific plans for the Cadillac, it's reasonable to assume they won't include low-income housing.

Just outside of Rochester's Central Business District, controversy continues over a tent encampment of homeless people on property belonging to Spectrum. It's private property, and Spectrum isn't in the business of providing shelter for homeless people. But as with low-income and Affordable housing, Rochester has a shortage of housing and services for the homeless. And so far, we haven't been able to meet all of their needs.

Meanwhile, downtown development continues. Some of it is for moderate-income housing, but much of what we're seeing is market rate. And sometime in late summer, presumably, the big, big development plan will hit City Council's agenda: Parcel 5 at Midtown. The proposal is for a new theater for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and more apartments, most of which are expected to be market rate.

At some point, we need to do an assessment. Does market-rate development still need tax incentives? Who's going to provide housing for people who can't afford the new apartments? Do we want to perpetuate economic segregation? How do we meet the needs of the homeless – and who should do that?

We can't wait much longer to answer questions like that.


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