TROY, NY – Two political newcomers set their sights on North Lansingburgh. This story was first published in Metroland on June 18th, 2009.
Democrats in Troy are closely watching the City Council race in District 1. Republican Mark Wojcik, who currently holds the district, is stepping down this coming year due to term limits, and the Democrats are banking on lifetime Lansingburgh resident Kevin McGrath to take back the seat that was once held by a Democrat, and expand their 6-to-3 majority.
“I think the McGrath name plays very well up there in Lansingburgh,” said Councilman Bill Dunne (D-District 4). “I would certainly say it’s better than even money.”
McGrath said that the biggest issue for the district is crime, which can be attributed to the overabundance of absentee landlords. According to McGrath, landlords irresponsibly subdivide their houses in an attempt to maximize the number of tenants in one dwelling. This creates problems of overcrowding and floods the market with cheap housing, which translates into crime. McGrath said that the landlords live mostly in New York City and see their properties as rent checks rather than as part of the community.
“Lansingburgh was always a community of pride and togetherness,” said McGrath. “This whole epidemic of absentee landlords is changing the quality of life. Businesses that have been here forever are moving away.”
The Republicans are running Jim Gordon, who is heavily involved in community programs; the neighborhood watch program that he cofounded recently secured a federal grant. The money is being used to build a park at 112th Street and 1st Avenue.
“That’s really what sparked my desire to run,” said Gordon. “There are a lot of people motivated to improve their neighborhoods.”
Gordon agreed that absentee landlords are a big issue and blames permissive zoning laws that have shackled an evolving Troy to outdated guidelines.
Although the two candidates believe that the biggest issue is crime related to the absentee-landlord problem, they differ in their approach on how to stop the overcrowding. Gordon would like to see the city completely change its zoning classification to prevent the kind of overcrowding that the current system allows. McGrath sees it as an issue of code enforcement and said that fines need to be upped to discourage landlords from violating city code.
“Absentee landlords will just take the fine for the broken heating or the leaky roof instead of fixing it,” said McGrath. “You need to increase the fines.”
Councilman Dunne agreed that Troy’s zoning laws are outdated, but said that a complete review and overhaul of Troy’s zoning structure isn’t feasible in the current economic climate. He said the Democrats have a different approach to fighting the absentee landlords, which includes passing a temporary moratorium on subdividing houses and a landlord registry that keeps track of those homeowners who don’t live in Troy. McGrath said that an additional provision of the landlord registry requires landlords living 35 miles or more from their properties to designate a local contact for that property in case of emergency.
Gordon admits that a zoning review may be costly, but said that most of the work is already done and that there’s federal grant money available to assist with the process.
“Our code in the city of Troy hasn’t been updated for somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 years,” said Gordon. “You have to adapt and innovate for the times and our current zoning flaws are putting a tremendous amount of stress on our infrastructure and on our city.”
Gordon also said that Troy’s business zoning should be examined to promote growth in an area that he said prohibits it.
“I see Jim Gordon as Mark Wojcik, part two,” Dunne said.
Gordon said he’s not interested in party politics and just wants to get things done. He gave the Democratic Party credit for helping his neighborhood watch program secure funding for their park, which was opposed by Republican Mayor Harry Tutunjian.
“If all people want to do is burn bridges and build walls I think what we’re going to find is that the general public won’t accept that,” said Gordon. “Ultimately, my agenda is going to be dictated and laid out by the residents.”
McGrath said his record speaks for itself. His brother, Ed, held the District 1 council seat before Wojcik. He grew up in nearby Corliss Park and calls himself a product of the Lansingburgh Boys Club. Another brother, Patrick, is a New York State Supreme Court justice.
“I think from watching political races you always run scared,” said McGrath. “There’s no substitute for work ethic. I know as long as I put people before politics, and I go out and knock on doors, I know I can make a difference, whatever happens.”
“Lansingburgh likes to think of itself as Lansingburgh, not North Troy,” said Dunne. “Kevin [McGrath] understands their issues and their concerns; I think he’d bring a fresh perspective to representation for the folks of Lansingburgh.”
“It’s going to be a heck of a race,” said Gordon. “I plan on knocking on every door I can.”