In many ways, it is an exciting time in Syracuse.
The restoration of the Hotel Syracuse is emblematic of a downtown reborn, which continues to fill up with residential and commercial tenants – over the next few years, thousands of jobs will be added into the downtown economy.
Just a few weeks ago, I moved into the Huntley in Strathmore, another historic building that was saved and restored by proud residents of Syracuse.
My roommate, LJ, is testament to a resurgence of civic energy in Syracuse: He is from Sleepy Hollow, New York, and he chose to attend Syracuse University after being accepted there some five years ago, despite never having visited the school. When he graduated this past spring, in the same way as so many of my classmates, I saw his leaving as a loss to our community.
Yet, he’d enjoyed his time at Syracuse and he claimed that he wanted to come back to begin his career. I wondered if this sentiment was simply a means of humoring those of us in our group of friends who were actually “from here.”
It wasn’t. Not only did he look for jobs in the area: He found one. Not only did he say he wanted to come back: He actually did. A young person, who’d grown up just a short train ride away from New York City, wanted to be here – and there was a job available for him.
That is not the standard narrative for Syracuse. We found an affordable place to live in a diverse city atmosphere, rich with local history.
Still, when we head next door to Maloney’s, a bodega-like corner store, too often do I see children or young people in line who are equally representative of another reality that we cannot afford to ignore if we hope to reach our full potential as a city.
Over the past few years, Syracuse and Onondaga County have gained national notoriety for the worst reasons – a string of national or statewide studies have found that we harbor extreme rates of poverty, which is abnormally and problematically intertwined to our hyper-segregation.
The poverty, as well as the segregation, is not simply a product of the recent recession, but rather a product of factors such as history, economy and industry. These larger challenges have ailed Syracuse for so long that they tend to seem natural, or insolvable, yet, such a feeling only perpetuates the problem.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, in a speech in Syracuse in 1965: “Any real change in the status quo depends on continued creative action to sharpen the conscience of the nation.”
At Syracuse University’s Sim’s Hall, King decided to address the topic of public education in Northern cities, which was impossible to do without recognizing the trends and decisions that were shaping the economic and demographic makeup of neighborhoods. In Northern cities like Syracuse, King noted that “the trend toward school segregation [was] accelerating”, in accordance with “de facto segregation” – the direct result of a lack of opportunities for decent jobs for African-Americans, the outward movement of more affluent white families to the suburbs and already-existing segregated housing patterns.
King compared de facto segregation to “a gigantic forest fire whose flames destroy at the center and spread at the periphery,” in which economic mobility becomes all-but-impossible in neighborhoods infested with “the multi-faceted evil that is poverty.”
That speech was given, here, some 50 years before the Century Foundation released Paul Jargowsky’s study, “The Architecture of Segregation“, which found that Syracuse harbored the highest national rates of concentrated poverty among black and Hispanic residents. From 2000 to 2015, the number of neighborhoods in Syracuse that contained “extreme poverty” spread and rose from 12 to 30 ….
As King prophesied, like a gigantic forest fire.
In order to stop such a fire, he said, “we must dig trenches” but also “give equal, if not greater attention to the fire within.”
Just last week, an opportunity was missed in Syracuse, which could help to at least begin turning back the fire: The Common Council once again declined to vote on an amendment to legislation that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of a tenant’s source of income – currently, landlords in the city and county can legally refuse tenants that pay their rent with Section 8 vouchers, which typically cover about 70 percent of the cost of rent for economically disadvantaged Americans, with the idea being that an already-disadvantaged family should not have to pay more than 30 percent of its income on rent.
According to Mike McAndrew, then reporting for Syracuse.com, “there are nearly 5,800 low-income families with the Section 8 vouchers in Onondaga County. Most live in poor neighborhoods of Syracuse because there are few low-income apartments that accept Section 8 vouchers in the suburbs.” There is a profound shortage of such vouchers in Onondaga County – too often, those who are granted Section 8 vouchers are confined to neighborhoods that are concentrated with poverty, as only in these neighborhoods will landlords accept those vouchers.
In Syracuse, our poverty is intertwined with our segregation; thus, the denial – and shortage – of such vouchers is a perpetuation of both, as these vouchers have the potential to serve as a ticket out of sometimes-apocalyptic circumstances, in which the destination is simply normalcy, or neighborhoods that harbor quality schools, safe parks and corners that serve as nothing more than an intersection of roads, rather than the center place of drug markets.
Significant progress in desegregating the area would likely require a county-wide amendment to the legislation that currently allows landlords to refuse tenants based off of pay, rather than simply a city-wide amendment. Still, if we seek larger change, we ourselves should change. The potential of these vouchers has been diminished in Syracuse, where landlords are legally justified in practicing “freedom of choice” when accepting tenants that would pay with vouchers.
When Dr. King spoke in Syracuse, he called de facto segregation “no less ugly” and “no less destructive toward mental health” than Jim Crow segregation in the South, where school integration was stagnating due to the prevalence of schools that practiced “freedom of choice” in accepting African-American students.
“Is it not ludicrous,” King asked, “for anyone who genuinely has observed segregation in action …. to believe that freedom of choice will be anything less than a total farce in achieving desegregation?” Such freedom of choice, he said, “is sheer illusionary freedom.”
Landlords often argue reasons of maintenance and cost make the vouchers unappealing. In regard to Section 8, if an economically-disadvantaged tenant physically damages a property, but cannot afford to have it fixed, the burden of cost falls on the landlord. My point in writing this is not to scold landlords, as I believe those concerns are worthy of discussion.
Yet, we are fooling ourselves if we truly believe that the cause of section 8 discrimination is always economic in nature. In a hyper-segregated community, slippery is the slope that allows for such discrimination. Consider this quote from a Syracuse.com article in April of 2016, in which a landlord – addressing the Common Council – describes his own supposed experiences with tenants that use Section 8 vouchers, whom he is legally justified in denying, if he so chooses:
“People on Section 8,” he said, “I’ve got young, healthy men and I ask them, hey, can you quit smoking weed? Can you quit smoking weed in here? They won’t stop playing video games long enough to listen to me and I’m picking up the damn trash in the yard.”
As a 22 year-old college student, I know plenty of “young healthy men” who smoke weed and play video games, but they do not use Section 8 vouchers for rent. Therefore, this example, to me, is simply an ill-advised generalization – and generalizations only propagate the status quo, which in too many ways has not changed since King’s time.
There are other realities that we must face in Syracuse, too. Despite our economic progress downtown, we remain a low-market city, which lacks the substantial entry-level jobs that once allowed for economic mobility for under-educated and economically disadvantaged citizens. Section 8 vouchers, and inclusionary zoning polices, are necessary if we are to acknowledge the necessity to integrate our city, both economically and demographically.
I can see the looming counter argument coming already like a flat fastball – how does subsidizing the poor solve the situation? The poor need to learn the value of work, some will say. Well, for those who harbor that opinion, I would ask you this:
How are children to learn the value of work if they are born – and remain for the rest of their lives – in a poverty-stricken neighborhood that harbors little to no opportunity?
King also worried that the de facto segregation “was so complex that many run from it, because the enormity of it overwhelms them.” In Syracuse, some 50 years later, I can’t help but feel as though it’s time to decide what – or who – we want to be right now. Do we accept our status as a “hyper-segregated city” with extreme poverty that is rapidly expanding because “no longer can the victims of debasive poverty and deprivation be tolerant of lofty analysis and a paralysis in deeds,” as King said, in our own town?
The proposed amendment to the source of income legislation is a good place to start change that we so desperately need. The Common Council has been given the opportunity to end a practice that denies housing to our most disadvantaged residents. If the Council is to amend the legislation, no longer would discrimination – be it subtle, reasonable or nefarious.
As King put it, “change is not self-operative”, but rather is dependent on our action and vigilance, which places pressure on leaders to do the same. Common Councilor Jean Kessner proposed the amendment in April, but it has yet to be voted on. In the past, landlords in Syracuse “have successfully fought laws that would restrict their business“, while some landlords were “among the largest donors to city campaigns,” according to Syracuse.com’s Chris Baker. In the same article, Former City Councilor Bob Dougherty expressed concern that landlords possessed political sway that is “out of proportion” to the rest of us.
For all of those reasons, our attention to this matter is incredibly important. Still, for those that remain uncertain as to their position on the matter, I’d like to offer this sentiment:
In the building in which I live, Section 8 Vouchers are accepted – it does not feel utopian, or scary, or abnormal – It feels like a city. It feels like something that I think would have made Dr. King proud.
Personal Change – II