Buffalo-bred Greg Ayers remembers standing with his sisters at age 13 and watching construction workers build his new home.
Ayers’ parents had decided this development was a good place to start fresh. They previously lived in a home Ayers’ grandparents owned and knew it was time for a change.
The second home was where he made many of his fondest childhood memories.
“That was the life,” he says.
But just four short years later, his home had fallen apart. Today, 20 years later, he’s put it all back together, helping others find homes of their own, sometimes in the face of discrimination and other unfair practices.
The imposing Ayers — who stands 6 feet, 4 inches, 265 pounds — is the enforcement manager at CNY Fair Housing in Syracuse. He helps coordinate housing tests that the nonprofit runs to see if landlords are discriminating against renters, particularly the disabled, minorities, and families with children. Ayers, 33, is responsible for divvying out assignments and matching testers to cases based on their backgrounds and characteristics. Testers pose as actual renters. If they uncover problems, CNY Fair Housing steps in to problem-solve and even pursue legal action.
When he’s not coordinating tests, Ayers takes phone calls, files paperwork and analyzes tests, among other tasks.
He started as a fair housing investigator in April 2012, and was promoted to enforcement manager within the year. He relishes the role and balances a busy workweek with caring for his son in stretches and bowling competitively.
Ayers struggled to find himself for years, but he has groomed himself into a strong-willed leader.
“Greg has developed a great rapport with our volunteers and individuals in need of service,” CNY Fair Housing Assistant Director Karen Schroeder said. “He works every day with people from every background.”
Ayers applied for his CNY Fair Housing job after his girlfriend saw the opening on Craigslist|Trevor Hass, staff photo
A 17-year-old Ayers came home one afternoon to find his mother, Antionette, packing her belongings. He was confused, and his confusion quickly turned to bewilderment.
“What do you mean you’re packing up?”
“Your dad asked me to leave.”
“OK, so where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet, but a moving truck is coming in the next hour, so this is probably the last time I’m ever in this house … I just want you to know this wasn’t my decision.”
Ayers was a senior in high school. He noticed his parents arguing, like most couples do, but he never expected them to split.
“I’m living life,” Ayers said. “Playing basketball with my boys and videogames, trying to sneak girls in the house, just being a typical teenage boy. You come home and half the house is gone.
“I was floored.”
Going into his senior year, Ayers was 11th in his class of 52 at Leonardo Da Vinci High School on the lower west side of Buffalo. He’d seen family members go to jail for drug dealing, and he knew he didn’t want to travel down that path.
But during his senior year, his grades dwindled and he had “mental anguish.” People assumed he was OK because of his macho bravado and cool demeanor, but inside he was torn up.
Who am I doing this for? What’s the point? What am I going to do with my life?
“By the last semester, I was failing,” Ayers said. “I don’t know. I always knew better, but I felt like no one cared. That’s what drove me into a downward spiral.”
Ayers’ parents didn’t pay for him to go to college, so he used student loans and a job at AccuMED Technologies, Inc. to pay his way. He struggled mentally.
“I think what got me through a lot of it was my personality,” Ayers said. “Just (BS-ing) my way through a lot of it, to be honest with you.”
During his college years that spanned from 2002-2010 at D’Youville College in Buffalo, Ayers did finally find his niche – Students in Free Enterprise. SIFE is an entrepreneurial-based organization that teaches students about free enterprise and helps struggling members of the community become independent. He started out as the “clicker,” simply pressing the space bar to go from one slide to the next in others’ Power Point presentations.
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
How does CNY Fair Housing try to see that laws are followed?
CNY Fair Housing has worked with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County in recent years to improve its enforcement abilities and to create awareness about fair housing in the area. CNY Fair Housing is developing a new website and moving into a new office that will be more readily accessible to clients, especially those with disabilities.
CNY Fair Housing accepts about 350 complaints each year. About 75 percent of these come from Onondaga County and about 40 percent come from the city of Syracuse. The majority of complaints relate to landlord-tenant issues, rather than fair housing, and involve habitability, evictions and privacy. CNY Fair Housing advises these tenants of their rights. CNY Fair Housing does investigate to determine if the problems are a result of discrimination when the complainants are members of a protected class as defined by law. About 60 percent of the fair housing complaints received by CNY Fair Housing are related to disability. Family status is the No. 2 complaint, and then race.
CNY Fair Housing also tests whether patterns of discrimination exist against a particular protected class or within a particular geographic area. In 2013, CNY Fair Housing, under contract with the city of Syracuse, tested familial status discrimination in the Syracuse University neighborhood. In eight out of the 10 instances that were tested, there was some evidence of disparate treatment of families with children. In three out of the 10 tests, the instances were severe enough to warrant legal action. CNY Fair Housing says it has worked to educate these landlords about the law; it may pursue legal action if things don’t improve.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
He gained the trust of his colleagues, and as long-time members departed, they chose Ayers to be president. “I was always the guy who wanted to be behind the scenes,” Ayers said. “I never looked at myself as a leader.”
But he blossomed into the role, helping his team go to the national championship in a competition and place in the Top 20 despite being outmatched by larger schools with more money. The group served as a resource to the community as well, helping people learn computer skills and preparing them for job interviews, among other tasks.
At a job fair Ayers organized, some ex-cons approached him and asked for advice.
“Greg, I can’t find work,” they said. “Nobody wants to hire a felon. I don’t want to go back to the streets.”
Today, Ayers recalls: “From there, I’m just like, ‘The community needs me.’ ”
Ayers moved on to graduate school at SUNY Binghamton, starting in 2011, where one class assignment was to find a news article that generated a talking point related to public policy. He chose an article about how residents in New York City housing projects were treated.
He would learn just how bad conditions were in 1930s-era units: 400 to 600 people per complex, holes in the walls, bad plumbing and balky electricity. Ayers said the research really moved him, and he knew he’d found his calling.
It was his girlfriend who found the job at CNY Fair Housing on Craigslist. He applied, interviewed and was hired April 12, 2012, two days before his 31st birthday.
The move to Syracuse also put him closer to his son.
Ayers works as the enforcement manager at CNY Fair Housing.|Trevor Hass, staff photo
Halloween night, 2004, Ayers’ life changed considerably when his son, Donnel, was born. Ayers was still an undergrad, “living the party life,” as he put it.
But he had prepared for the role of being a father for years. He often looked after his cousin, Stefen, taking him to the barbershop because Stefen’s father wasn’t around and his mother couldn’t drive.
Now Stefen is 14. His voice is squeaky and he’s entering puberty. Donnel is 9 and lives with his mother in Buffalo. Donnel spends most of the year there, but he and Stefen live with Ayers in Syracuse during school vacations and throughout the summer.
“He’s a good kid,” Ayers says. “It sucks that he doesn’t have the two-parent household he deserves. It’s just the situation at hand. He understands. He loves coming here and being with his dad.”
He admires Donnel’s drive for perfection already – a trait Ayers admits he didn’t have growing up. Sometimes Donnel cries when he makes a mistake, but Ayers advises that it just means that he cares.
And when they tell Donnel he looks just like his dad, he nods in agreement, but adds, “Kind of, but I’m my own person.”
“I feel that you have to do what’s right for yourself first,” Ayers said. “I never was. I always felt like I was doing things for everyone else or so that I wouldn’t be labeled.
“Even when you achieve all of those things society says you’re not supposed to achieve, you’re still running from a label.”
One label today is “ace bowler.”
When he’s not working or hanging with Donnel, Ayers may well be at the bowling alley, toting his 15-pound ball and pursuing a passion introduced by his grandmother.
“He owns more bowling balls than many sporting good stores,” Schroeder jokes.
His average is 206, and he’s bowled five 300s. He said his hand felt like Jell-O the first time he flirted with and found perfection.
Ayers has experienced discrimination first-hand. When he moved to Syracuse, he had trouble finding a place because landlords assumed he had bad credit because he’s African-American.
He thought he would be entitled to a discounted rate, but instead a landlord told him the special was based on credit, credit he assumed Ayers did not have. It helps in his work today to know the feeling.
“He’s much better at coordinating tests than I was, so I’m glad he’s doing it and not me,” staff attorney Conor Kirchner said. “He’s good at keeping in touch with the testers and making sure they do what they need to do.”
“He seems very passionate about what he does,” adds a housing tester Ayers has trained.
“I dealt with a lot of adversity,” Ayers says, “and I’m here now pushing forward for more.”