For two months during the fall of 2016, the darkest corners and forgotten spaces in Albany, New York, were brought shining back to life. Thousands of abandoned buildings can be found in New York’s capital city, emptied in the wake of a manufacturing exodus from the region. But, for a short period, hundreds of buildings were transformed at night as gentle pulsing lights, mimicking the soft rhythm of human breath, shone through the windows.
The project, dubbed Breathing Lights, was an art installation meant to spark conversations about the future of some of the capital region’s most troubled neighborhoods. The ingenuity of the installation was the first reason Prachi Naik MPP 2020 was drawn to work with the city of Albany as a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative summer fellow. The second was Mayor Kathy Sheehan.
Happening in City Hall
Since taking office in 2014, Sheehan has worked both to revitalize Albany’s abandoned and distressed buildings and provide quality housing for low-income communities. Underlying the work of Sheehan’s administration is a tireless dedication to data-driven governance. “I admire how Mayor Sheehan’s data-informed work doesn't stop at the analysis of the problem,” said Naik. “She has a systematic approach to getting to the root cause of the issue and then acting upon those learnings.”
Last year, Mayor Sheehan and her team worked with two Harvard initiatives to advance their efforts to improve the city’s neighborhoods. Mayor Sheehan was one of 40 mayors in the second cohort of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a groundbreaking training program for mayors and senior city leaders housed at the Ash Center and funded by a generous gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Albany was also selected to be a part of the Innovation Field Lab New York (IFL NY), another initiative of the Ash Center’s Innovations in Government Program that uses data-driven experimentation and real-time policy innovation to help cities combat blight.
“It's not just all on us to sit in a conference room at city hall and say, ‘Here's the problem that we have with vacant buildings and we're going to figure this out and then go do it,’" said Mayor Sheehan during an IFL NY executive education session at Harvard Kennedy School. “We can accelerate change and adoption when we bring the people who are impacted as we're making those decisions.”
Mayor Sheehan’s insistence that local voices help guide the city’s approach to distressed housing ultimately paved the way for Naik’s role as a Bloomberg Harvard summer fellow in Albany. Every summer the Initiative embeds over a dozen students in city halls around the country to work closely with mayors and their senior staff on a variety of projects. Mayor Sheehan charged Naik with collecting more data about what exactly was happening to people and communities at the heart of the city’s housing woes.
A Summer in Albany
On her first day, Naik shook hands with the mayor and went straight into a meeting with high-level city officials. She then got to work interviewing city residents. “The purpose of the survey was so the mayor could understand why people were getting displaced, why the houses continued to fall into these damaging cycles of disrepair, what the best possible interventions could be, and when in the process to intervene,” said Naik.
Naik’s survey work revealed several issues that were preventing properties from being properly maintained and renters from occupying empty properties. “Financial literacy, not only on the tenants' ends but also on the landlords' ends, really impacted how businesses were run and how rents were determined,” noted Naik.
Common concerns voiced by tenants included high rents, lack of repairs, and fear of landlord retaliation for complaints. Landlords, on the other hand, struggled financially with maintaining their properties; in some instances, the cost of upkeep was likely to exceed the property’s ultimate value. Overall, poor landlord-tenant relationships were cited as an issue for both renters and property owners. Disputes often wound up resulting in legal action rather than being worked out between the two parties. Landlords would eventually feel they had little choice but to leverage the eviction process as a means to recoup unpaid rent.
A Bright Future
Naik’s final report informed a grant proposal that Albany submitted with support from IFL NY to Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement (Cities RISE), a program established by the New York State Office of the Attorney General to help cities pilot innovative programs to combat blighted and abandoned properties. Albany’s grant request was recently approved and will help fund a number of new initiatives in the city aimed at reducing housing displacement. One project, recommended by Naik, is to hire a housing services coordinator who will do extra-legal mediation work to prevent evictions.
“Kathy Sheehan has been an exemplary municipal leader: values-driven, performance-oriented, and always looking to innovate,” remarked Jorrit de Jong, Faculty Director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and Academic Director of the Ash Center’s Innovations in Government Program. “Prachi’s work in Albany was crucial to developing the innovative pilot programs that will now help the city of Albany not only prevent future blight but ensure that vulnerable residents can remain in their homes.”
As Naik finishes her final year at HKS, she looks forward to continuing to work to improve social welfare, building on her experience as a Bloomberg Harvard summer fellow. After graduation, she plans to complete a master’s in business administration and launch a social venture that places mental health counselors in under-resourced schools.
“Our public institutions need to do more to understand and improve the user experience for people who need services,” she says. Despite these challenges, Naik firmly believes in the potential of government to shape and achieve change, and that there is always a chance for a better tomorrow.
Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Manager