The dinner table conversations of John Yinger’s youth were spent discussing civil rights issues.
Yinger, a trustee professor of public administration and economics at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, has it in his blood to study issues of race and civil rights. His father, John Milton Yinger, wrote a sociology textbook on race relations that went through five editions in the 1950s.
In fact in 1965, the year Yinger graduated high school, he was able to briefly meet Martin Luther King Jr. because Yinger’s father invited King to deliver the commencement address at Oberlin College.
Yinger was going to drive King from his hotel to a nearby chapel where he was speaking. But at the last minute, Yinger’s father decided to drive. Yinger still remembers when King spoke to him.
“He turned around from the front seat and said ‘How are you, son,’ and asked what I was interested in, and in a wonderful deep gentle voice that made me feel important,” Yinger recalls.
At that time, Yinger was just figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Going to college in the 1960s, when issues of race were at the forefront of the conversation, Yinger was influenced to study that, and discrimination.
Yinger remembers his college years at Swarthmore College, and how the college struggled to handle diversity issues. In 1969, Yinger watched as African-American students staged a sit-in in the admissions building.
“My college was struggling just like everyplace and certainly questions about society were very much on the agenda for all of us in that era,” Yinger said.
Now, as a professor at Syracuse University and the vice-president of the board of directors for CNY Fair Housing, Yinger has used those early life experiences to become an expert in the study of housing discrimination.
Sally Santangelo, the executive director of CNY Fair Housing, said Yinger is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate members of the board of directors.
“I think the most important thing is he really gets it, in terms of how discrimination occurs and really seems to understand how discrimination plays out in our local market as well as nationally,” Santangelo said.
When it comes to Syracuse, the housing market is very typical of a struggling city economy. There are some nice neighborhoods with older housing, and then there are neighborhoods where housing and opportunities are poor, Yinger said.
There is also a high level of segregation in Syracuse, which has been influenced by many different factors, Yinger said.
“The segregation that we observe is partly a result of discrimination, partly a result of knowledge, partly a result of preference, partly a result of income,” Yinger said. “So it’s a complicated thing, and it’s proven to be very hard to untangle in Syracuse as in other places.”
Yinger also said that segregation is self-supporting. If someone grows up in a poor neighborhood with bad schools, they are much less likely to move out. This problem exists to this day in Syracuse, Yinger said.
Yinger said that cities like Syracuse do not have much money to spend on housing problems and receive less money from the federal government than in the past.
The dynamics of the housing market in Syracuse have led to a situation where those born into poor households have trouble overcoming the odds, Yinger said.
“The housing market automatically sorts people so that high-income people win the competition for housing in places where services are better, and that’s a very difficult dynamic to overcome,” Yinger said.
What is CNY Fair Housing, and how does it work with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County?
CNY Fair Housing is a private, nonprofit organization that’s known as a “qualified fair housing enforcement agency,” which means it is recognized as a good judge of housing standards and practices.
It works with the city and county to assess impediments to fair housing, and to dismantle them. It recently performed a comprehensive review, which is required because we get a lot of money here in Central New York from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD wants to assure fair housing laws are being followed. Among a number of things, the city and county are supposed to ensure:
- That housing is evaluated in this jurisdiction, and that discrimination is identified and eliminated.
- That fair housing choices are available for everyone, including racially and ethnically diverse populations.
- That fair housing is accessible to — and usable by — all people, particularly those with disabilities.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
What laws aim to ensure fair housing?
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 asserted the first housing discrimination protections: “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”
The Act went largely unenforced. In 1968, Congress passed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion and national origin. In 1974, the Act was amended to include sex as a protected class and in 1988 to include disability and family status. Locally, in 2012 the city of Syracuse amended Local Law 17, the Fair Practices Act, to eliminate discrimination in housing based on individuals’ “actual or perceived sex, or their gender identity or expression.”
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods
The CNY Fair Housing Report identified six impediments to fair housing in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Impediment 1 is a straightforward problem with not-so straightforward solutions: “The economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods restricts housing choice for many low-income, disabled, and minority residents,” the report said. The report proposes two main ideas: Expand opportunity in these low-income neighborhoods, and spread out affordable housing to areas where opportunities are greater.
The report says: It is important to note that while the immediate concern of this analysis relates to housing opportunity and the majority of recommendations concern housing policies and practices, addressing economic and educational barriers is also critical. The educational opportunity a child receives is determined by the neighborhood they live in, and the neighborhood a family chooses is determined by the economic resources they have and educational resources their child will have access to.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
As a professor of urban economics and urban policy, Yinger says housing discrimination can be an uncomfortable topic for students.
“The first thing is that in our society, many people are very nervous talking about issues of race and ethnicity,” Yinger said. “It’s a challenging topic because many people have strong feelings about it, so the first class is always to establish common ground, and the key thing is to get everyone to understand these are social categories.”
As a scholar, Yinger is interested in studying the behavior behind discrimination and wants his students to understand that behavior, which is why he teaches them about fair housing audits.
Yinger himself has much experience with fair housing audits, having served as the research director of a national audit for the 1989 Housing Discrimination Study working with the Urban Institute.
Yinger designed the process for the audits and calculated the research, while the Urban Institute executed the audits. The basic idea for a fair housing audit is simple, Yinger said. The first step is to find people who are good at playing a role. The next step is to send out a black person and white person identically qualified for housing, and if the minorities are systematically treated worse that serves as direct evidence of discrimination.
“It’s a technique that’s quite powerful because it has a narrative. Anybody who reads about it can imagine themselves in that circumstance,” Yinger said. “They can imagine walking into a real estate broker’s office being told nothing is available, when someone else comes in with a different skin color and is offered five houses to look at. So it’s a powerful narrative, and that’s why it is powerful for research but also policy.”
Yinger always teaches his classes about housing audits, but it can be hard to organize with students, he said. He does remember one class executing a successful audit using telephone calls instead of visiting in person.
Yinger has also gotten involved in audits on a local level as more of an informal advisor to CNY Fair Housing. Santangelo said CNY Fair Housing conducts many housing audits locally, and Yinger’s a great resource, even if it just means talking over relevant policy issues or getting advice.
Beverly Fair-Brooks has known Yinger for over 20 years, having first met when she got involved with CNY Fair Housing in the ’90s. Now she serves as president of the board of CNY Fair Housing and considers Yinger a good friend and one of the people most passionate about housing discrimination she has met.
“Passionate, go look up the word in the dictionary and you are going to see his picture there. He is passionate because he believes in what he is writing and speaking about,” Fair-Brooks said. “When he sees something, whether it’s the system or an individual or a process that is not what he would consider appropriately addressing the situation, he is going to speak on it and he doesn’t bite his tongue.”
Fair-Brooks said Yinger is a great resource for CNY Fair Housing not only for his wide range of knowledge about housing discrimination, but also for his many contacts, who often help when CNY Fair Housing needs information.
She says he’s incredibly humble.
“He is the most down-to-earth people you would ever want to talk with, always makes you feel like he’s known you for years and he makes you feel comfortable,” Fair-Brooks said. “Even if you are not aware of what he’s accomplished, when you find out you think, ‘My god, he just always made me feel right at home.’”
Fair Housing Audit to be Conducted in Syracuse in June
Judson Murchie, a Ph.D. student in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and an advisee of Yinger, is designing his own fair housing audit to be executed locally in early June.
The audit would be done using email to test whether landlords are discriminating against tenants based on characteristics such as age, race or gender.
Murchie said Yinger has been a great resource, having conducted fair housing audits himself on a national scale.
“He’s helped us clearly think through, ‘What is the issue we are trying to identify and how will it have an impact?’” Murchie said. “He is all about, ‘What is the connection to the real world?’”