It was strange to wake up on a recent Sunday, pick up my copy of the Post Standard and see that the lead story on the front page was about vacant houses. This is an issue that SUN has been working on for the past 14 years. I have invested more time, thought and research into this issue than any other in my community organizing career.
The article entitled “Nobody’s home” was highly misleading. According to the reporter Greg Munno the story unfolds this way: Vacant and abandoned houses are a nasty problem throughout the Northeast. Buffalo is a good example of a city hard-hit by the problems. Syracuse, while struggling with the problem, has made amazing progress and several new initiatives will actually help the city “turn the corner” on the problem.
Who did the Post Standard interview from Syracuse for this story? A Tipp Hill resident, Kerry Quaglia, the executive director of Home Headquarters and Mayor Driscoll. All of the people in the article conform to the preconceived story line of eventual triumph over the problem: the resident on Tipp Hill lives near a house that has been rehabbed. Kerry Quaglia’s agency does rehabs and Mayor Driscoll is proposing the plans that will “turn the corner” on the problem.
The Post does admit that while Tipp Hill has avoided the fate of many vacant houses “other Syracuse neighborhoods haven’t been so lucky.” But no information about these poor neighborhoods is given. The story may not have fit the already set thesis if the focus of article had been the poor neighborhoods on the city’s south and near west sides–the epicenter of the problem with vacant and abandoned houses.
The Post is absolutely correct when it writes that “vacant homes tend to be clustered in the city’s poorest areas and are both a cause and consequence of poverty.” and “Even with that investment and more than 300 demolitions a year, the vacancy rate grew in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census.” The 2000 U.S. census documents that the ten low-income census tracts on the south and near-west sides comprise 15% of the city’s households. City records show that these same neighborhoods harbor 45% of the city’s vacant houses.
Unfortunately, the specific details about the problems that vacant and abandoned houses cause is all taken from Buffalo. No mention of the crime, arson, vandalism, decreased home values and inability to get property insurance in Syracuse neighborhoods is mentioned in this article. Of course, that would violate the premise of the article–Syracuse is getting better all the time.
The Post also uses questionable information to back up its “turn the corner” premise:
1) “In the last six months, for instance, the number of vacant residential structures fell from about 1,300 to just over 1,000.”
According to a computer print out dated January 2, 2008 provided to SUN by the Department of Code Enforcement, the city listed 1,225 vacant houses in the city of Syracuse. This is an increase of 120 from a similar print out provided to SUN in January of 2007. The Post cites Home Headquarters for its figures of 1,033 current vacant houses and “about 1,300” six months ago. The Post overstates the top number of vacant houses and low balls the new number of vacant houses.
2) This decline is “partially due to several large demolitions, such as the razing of the Shady Willows Estates apartment complex on Onondaga Creek Boulevard.”
The Shady Willows development of dilapidated apartments was demolished many years ago. In fact, Home Headquarters received $1,000,000 in SNI funding for demolition of Shady Willows in 2002 and an additional $250,000 in SNI funding in 2003 for cleaning up the toxic oil spill found underneath the buildings. The Southside Charter school built their new building on that site in 2007.
3) “Nonprofit agencies have been snatching up homes to rehabilitate since Syracuse started a program last year of selling abandoned, tax-delinquent homes to nonprofits for a dollar.”
According to (PDF alert) the Mayor’s State of The City address, only 24 houses (two percent of the total number of vacants) have been bought–all by Home Headquarters. The reason they haven’t been “snatched up” is that the city may only collect a dollar, but they require the non-profit to set up a $10,000 escrow account, scaring off smaller non-profits.
So, are we turning the corner on vacant and abandoned houses in Syracuse? The city demolishes about 300 houses each year and another 20 or so vacant houses burn down each year. Despite these subtractions the overall number of vacant houses hovers between 1,100 and 1,200 every year. The city is proposing two programs–one for non-profits and one for private developers that may help rehab 60 houses next year. It is unclear if the participants will have the capacity to maintain that level of commitment after next year. That takes care of roughly five percent of the current number of vacant houses in the city.
As Robert Redford’s character stated in the great political movie “The Candidate”: “I don’t think we can see the corner, much less turn it.”