I’ve been wandering around town recently, struck by the incompetence and arrogance of our local government. My instant concern is the inability of the Syracuse Common Council to agree to work with the Mayor and County Executive to create a countywide Land Bank, a non-profit authority enabled to foreclose on tax delinquent vacant houses. The arguments from dissenting councilors deal with how much additional tax revenue the city can wring out of the deal and how the Council can safeguard its own power against the perceived power of both the Mayor and Onondaga County officials.
No one really seems to grasp how the increase of abandoned housing in the inner city has stoked many different problems: poverty, drug dealing, decreased property values, threats of arson, illegal trash dumping, shots fired, loitering, public drunkenness, decrease of homeownership, increase of absentee slumlords. . . the list seems endless.
Do they not care? I think the issue is more that they do not see. Only three councilors live within shouting distance of a neighborhood dealing with vacant and abandoned buildings. The rest live in the bubble of middle-class prosperity on the outer ring of the city. Like so many Americans, they have bought their way out of the inner city and are unable to understand what is going on with the poor residents of these neighborhoods. To them, Syracuse is the “eds and meds” of University Hill, the law firms and government offices downtown, the gentrified entertainment district of Armory Square and residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city–Strathmore, Sedgwick and Bradford Hills–areas closer to the spirit of their suburban neighbors than their fellow city residents.
The Common Council is not acting on the crisis of vacant and abandoned houses because half of all the vacant property in the city is located in the low income neighborhoods of the south and near-west sides–an area that comprises only 15% of the city’s households. A small portion of the populace face grave danger and most in the city are oblivious to the problem.
Thomas Hobbes postulated that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Without some agreement amongst the populace to give up unrestricted individual liberty, society was doomed to exist without safety or order, reduced to a war of all against all. Hobbes believed that a monarch with absolute power was needed to avoid this fate. Americans leaned more heavily upon John Locke, whose Second Treatise On Government postulated that citizens could agree to organize a government that would act as an neutral guardian of people’s life, liberty and property. This is the notion of a social contract–that we’re all in this together, we’re not on our own.
It is instructive to drive through all of the city’s neighborhoods and wonder how things came to be. Many blame the residents of these neighborhoods for the problems–the trash, drugs, violence and decrepit housing all a sign of moral failings. Others see government conspiracies at work. I wonder if the answer lies somewhere in between. There are certainly hard working, industrious families living in blighted neighborhoods. There are even some hard working and dedicated government employees laboring on behalf of the residents of inner city neighborhoods. The shit really hits the fan in poor neighborhoods because there are not enough resources to make things right.
There are not enough parents with the combination of education, stable incomes, transportation and free time to successfully augment the educational experience of their children in the public schools (or pay for a private school.) Home repairs are scarce when you factor in poverty, 30% owner-occupancy rates and a frightening number of absentee slumlords. Trash and debris pile up when you have increased numbers of vacant lots, much larger numbers of pedestrians and a plethora of fast food restaurants and corner stores selling prepared foods in highly disposable packaging. And these are examples of issues that do not factor in the high profile pathologies of racism, poverty and crime.
Residents of low-income neighborhoods must wonder what happened to the social contract. Why can’t my kid get a decent education in a clean and safe school building? Why can’t the city tear down the vacant house next door that is crumbling before my eyes? Why can’t the police arrest the drug dealer openly peddling his wares on my corner? Why are my streets dirty and full of potholes? Why can’t I get a decent job that provides affordable health care for my family? Why have they cut back the number of bus routes I need to use? The social contract is now like cable TV–you can get basic service, but if you want the good stuff you’ve got to pay more.
Americans love to believe that we are an equal nation and that everyone is free to rise or fall according to their own talents and determination. Therefore, we should only seek to guarantee equality of opportunity. This results in a fatuous equivalence of rich and poor, best satirized by Anatole France, an author and journalist of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who wrote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
We would do well to augment our reliance on theorists like John Locke with the ideas of John Rawls. Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”, written in 1971, advocated that any society endeavoring to ensure equality amongst its citizens would allow unequal distribution of personal property and wealth to its worst off citizens–if only to temper the natural tendency of some citizens to gain a larger share of the pie due to natural talents or familial position.
We can start by creating a Land Bank.