Joe’von Works grew up on the South Side of Syracuse on Corning Avenue, an area that’s identified as “very low” in economic, education and housing opportunities. That’s the lowest score possible out of five rankings on a scale designed by the local nonprofit, Central New York Fair Housing.
His two children are growing up in Cicero, a town with moderate to high opportunities in all three categories.
Yes despite that, Works doesn’t think where people live determines their opportunities in life.
“I honestly believe you can live anywhere, I really do. You can right all wrongs, you can get out of the mess if you apply yourself,” he said in an interview this spring. “It is easier (in the suburbs) but I’ll tell you that what happens in the suburbs is just a microcosm of what happens in the city.”
Works was raised by a single mother who stressed the importance of education. Still, he acknowledges he “made some bad decisions” in terms of relationships, and he became a father shortly after he graduated.
Works never went to college and instead stayed in Syracuse and started working right away to support his daughter. He’s lived in the city all his life, and Works, 45, said this helps him better connect with the residents he helps through his job as a foreclosure prevention counselor at Home HeadQuarters, an organization that works to promote safe and affordable housing in the Syracuse area.
As a foreclosure prevention counselor, Works’ job is deceptively simple: help homeowners keep their homes. He works with people facing both mortgage and tax foreclosures and he said the biggest part of his job is helping people understand the process.
“A lot of individuals believe it’s a landlord-tenant type thing where they can be thrown out within 30 days,” Works said. “It’s not like that. It’s a very long, tedious process.”
Sometimes though, a house can’t or shouldn’t be saved. In these cases, Works tries to give clients information on what to do next as well as help them understand why they’re leaving the home. While some people want to stay in a house because of emotional attachment or because they don’t want to rent, it’s not always the best financial option, Works said.
But the most rewarding parts of the job are when Works is able to help save a client’s house. He remembers one 80-year-old man who had raised all his kids in the same house in Syracuse. His wife had died a few years ago and he was struggling to make his mortgage payments and in danger of losing the house.
After looking at all the man’s sources of incomes, Works was able to refinance the mortgage and make the payments more reasonable. The man had to re-start paying off his mortgage but he didn’t care: he knew he wanted to live in that house for the rest of his life.
Helping people keep their houses is particularly important in Syracuse, which has lower home ownership rates overall. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau puts home ownership rates in Syracuse at about 39 percent compared to the 54 percent average in New York State.
The home ownership situation is even bleaker when broken down by ethnicity. A 2014 CNY Fair Housing report found that African-Americans had a 29.9 percent home ownership rate in 2010, compared to a 71.9 percent rate for whites.
Some of this low home ownership rate may be due to the difficulties and discrimination African-Americans often face when applying for mortgages. According to the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center, in 2013 in Syracuse, African-Americans accounted for 344 mortgages compared to 11,749 for whites.
Unfortunately, there has been very few studies on mortgage lending practices so it’s hard to tell how widespread discriminatory practices are, said John Yinger, a Syracuse University economics and public administration professor who studies housing discrimination. Much of the data related to mortgage lending is held by two groups — mortgage companies and the federal government — that don’t want to make it available for analysis, he said.
Mortgage lending practices are also very difficult to examine through the testing methods fair housing groups normally use to check for housing discrimination, Yinger said. Unlike making up a fake backstory for an undercover tester, credit histories are hard to make up, he added.
But even the African-Americans who do want to buy homes, aren’t necessarily doing so in Syraucse. Despite having lived in Syracuse all his life, violence in the city is the main reason Works bought a house in Cicero about five years ago to raise his two youngest children, age 2 and 11.
“The times are different from what they were when I grew up to what they are now,” he said. “Having a young African-American male, trying to raise him in a particular environment, to me — I just wanted to put him in a different situation.”
Buying the house in Cicero has helped Works understand the emotional attachment many of his clients have to their own homes. It’s an emotional attachment that, for Works, extends to the city of Syracuse as well.
Works plans to eventually move back to the city and is proud to say that the daughter his girlfriend had right after high school is all grown up and has a college degree.
“My roots are still here, thank god,” he said. “I can tell you I lay my head there (in Cicero) but my work is done in the city.”
A View of the City from Working a Variety of Jobs
Joe’von Works’ deep connection with Syracuse started with his childhood on the South Side and continued during his adult life as he worked a variety of jobs that allowed him to see the city from all angles.
Works has had many different jobs — all in the city of Syracuse — during his career. He’s coordinated youth programming for the Syracuse Parks department, been a gang violence case manager for the Syracuse City School District, worked as a re-entry counselor for prisoners and now works as a foreclosure prevention counselor at Home HeadQuarters.
His background growing up in Syracuse was particularly helpful when he worked for the school district, because he was able to relate to the students he was counseling. School was a haven for many of the gang members Works counseled, and thanks to guidance from the program, many of these students were able to graduate from high school, he said.
The school district eventually eliminated that job, though, because of a lack of grant money. Though the district no longer has the gang violence program, Works said he hopes it will be re-established, especially given the increase in violence and drug use the city has experienced over the years.
Violence and drugs were not so common when Works was a teenager, but today, “we’re almost become numb to it,” he said. And although his current job doesn’t deal with the issues of gang violence he dealt with in the past, it still relates to his ultimate goal of improving Syracuse.
“If you have ownership in your community, you have ownership in the actions of the community, and you should do something to change that,” he said.