Charles Rivers opens the red door to his home on Kirk Avenue and ushers a visitor inside.
Welcome to a classic American family. They’ve outgrown their quarters and are anxious and excited about moving up to a larger rental.
Rivers, his wife, their daughter and her 3-month-old child could stand some space to spread out – along with a nephew they recently took in to provide a more stable home.
But the prospects for this simple wish coming true seem dim.
Standing in the way:
- A limited income.
- The Section 8 subsidy that helps immensely with the rent bill, but that any potential new landlord can legally ignore as counting toward their ability to pay — effectively eviscerating their budget and immensely handicapping their search.
- A single car for everyone to share.
- Their race — Rivers strongly suspects.
Even the pets, green- and yellow-feathered birds Cleo and Leo, add to the baggage.
Everything seems serene and perfect at first. And for the most part, it is. Rivers’ family is a loving, content and close-knit one. But everything is not as rosy as the baby’s cheeks.
For starters, the room where everyone gathers isn’t just a living room. It’s also the dining room and a bedroom for the nephew, who’s 10. A tan couch adjoins the space, where Cleo and Leo chirp in their cage, serving as the 10-year-old’s makeshift bed. Alongside that: A white, zippered, closet where he stores his clothes. The dining room table is squeezed in as well.
“We’ve been here for 18-19 years,” says Rivers, 45, who was willing to share his story but asked that his exact South Side address not be listed, a few personal details be left out, and that his family members not be mentioned by name in order to respect their privacy. “We’ve somewhat outgrown it,” he said of their longtime home. “That’s the real reason why we’re thinking about moving.”
Their search and frustration is not uncommon in a county where housing and neighborhood choice is rated “low” or “very low” for minorities. Countywide, some 79 percent of African-Americans live in these tracts; for whites, it’s just 22 percent. Some 56 percent of white residents live in areas of “high” or “very high” opportunity, versus just 12 percent of blacks. City homes are old and unaccommodating, too; 45 percent of them were built before 1939.
Rivers and his family have tirelessly searched for a new house for more than a year but have had extreme difficulty finding a suitable home to rent. The Riverses receive a Section 8 voucher sent directly to the landlord for as much as $500 a month. They are African-American and have two young children with them. The goal is to move from a three-bedroom to a four-bedroom to gain more room and transition into a more spacious house. Every time Rivers comes close to finding a new place to rent, a barrier prevents them from getting it. There are so many boxes to check, and if there’s even one problem, the whole house is no longer an option.
“I think a large part of our issue is financial,” Rivers said, “because if we had money we could just go and buy a house wherever we want. In Beverly Hills!”
The Riverses are looking to rent a house at approximately $900-$1,200 per month. While the goal of finding a new place keeps them motivated, they have had plenty of wonderful memories in the past 18 years in their gold-and-white two-family house near Kirk Park.
Perhaps the fondest memory came this past year. On Nov. 12, one of the most chaotic days of Rivers’ life turned into one he’ll never forget. That was the day he and his wife became grandparents. It was also their 20th anniversary.
The baby, who Rivers affectionately calls “Boo-Boo,” was born at 9:22 a.m. Everyone was at the hospital for the birth, then hustled home to put the finishing touches on the Riverses’ anniversary party.
Fifteen people – family, friends and co-workers – celebrated at the Riverses’ home.
“That’s a day we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” Rivers said. “It was such a rush of emotions.”
The only problem is that they were extremely tight on space and everyone was crammed together. Guests lined the walls and held their plates of food, clumping together to make room. The Riverses moved a second table next to the dining room table, and, as they put it, they “made it work.”
That made it more intimate, but realistically Rivers would like a better place. Though family and friends didn’t judge, Rivers said he was uncomfortable hosting a gathering for such a joyous occasion in such a tightly quartered area.
“It was very embarrassing,” Rivers said. ”You want people to come and spread their wings, eat and move around, but they couldn’t do that.”
Those guests made do, while the recently welcomed young nephew deals with this problem daily. He joined the family just more than a year ago when his father passed away. His mother decided it would be best if he moved in here.
The boy, who is in fourth grade and loves math, wears thick-rimmed black glasses, a blue shirt and pajamas with spaceships on them. He often has a smile on his face, and Rivers has treasured having him around.
The boy politely says his “room” is awesome. He’s an endearing kid and appreciates what he has. But when asked what he would want his new room to look like, he responds with one word and a sheepish grin: “Big.”
“He’s fun and we love him,” Rivers said. “We wish we could do more. This is where we’re stuck at right now, trying to find housing. Him being a part of our life has been a strong motivating factor to us wanting to get more room.”
Charles Rivers sits at his computer at home.|Trevor Hass, staff photo
But when they do make those phone calls, they consistently hit a wall. In March, Rivers said one call started out smoothly, but then he had to do what he always does – ask if they accept Section 8. The woman said she didn’t know what that was, which Rivers assumed was not the case. She said she’d have to ask the owner of the house, in Florida, and that she’d call him back in the coming weeks.
“I’ll probably never hear from the woman again,” Rivers said at the time.
Another landlord swiftly and curtly hung up the phone when he heard the Riverses were a Section 8 family. This March, for example, $370 of the Riverses’ $800 rent stemmed from a Section 8 voucher, which can deter landlords who might prefer to get it all from the tenant. When he’s working, Rivers – who is the main source of income in the household – pays more, and when he’s not, more of the rent comes from the voucher. Landlords are not required to accept Section 8, and the majority do not.
Unlike some other municipalities, neither Syracuse nor Onondaga County has a “source of income” protection law that would require it. As a test, Central New York Fair Housing reviewed rentals listed on Craigslist over a one-week period. Of 712 listings, only 25 volunteered that Section 8 renters were welcome; 94 said they would not take them; and the rest said nothing. Worse, of the 25 accepting Section 8, just a single one was in the city. The other two dozen are effectively out of reach for families like the Riverses, who have one car.
Rivers works 10 months a year and earns $22,000 as the Green Infrastructure Maintenance Supervisor at Onondaga Earth Corps. He has associate’s degrees in paralegal studies and psychology from Ashworth College, is working on a bachelor’s degree in human service from SUNY Empire and is heavily involved in volunteer work. Both of his children have degrees from Onondaga Community College.
“We’re not bad people,” he said. “It’s really hard and it’s really frustrating.”
Rivers has good credit and a landlord he trusts, Michael and Janet Wilson, but they currently don’t have a four-bedroom house available. If they did, the Riverses would take it “in a heartbeat.”
Another issue Rivers encounters is lack of safety. He doesn’t want his family living in an unsafe area, and says his block near Kirk Park is safe despite the reputation of the neighborhood. Rivers wants his family to stay as far away as possible from gun violence and other types of crime.
“I don’t care if we all have to sleep on the floor,” Rivers said. “At least we’re safe.”
The Census tract where the Riverses currently live does not provide the opportunity as some others in the city, and certainly those in the outlying county. There were 153 African-Americans in Census tract 58, where Rivers’ house is located, in 2012. The poverty rate for the tract is a staggering 52 percent. The median income was $27,333, and the Rivers family falls well below that already-modest figure. Educational opportunity is “very low” — Rivers is one of only 21 percent of adults age 25-plus in the track with some kind of college achievement.
Another issue is that the Riverses have only one car. Rivers needs it to get to work, so they can’t move to an area with no bus system because then the other residents would have no way to get around.
In August, the Riverses pulled up to a house to meet a landlord in a predominantly white neighborhood on Syracuse’s North Side. After a successful phone call, they were thinking maybe this could finally be the place for them.
Once they got there, their mood and outlook shifted entirely. A grandmother sat on a porch. Children frolicked in the front yards. The landlord spoke with the neighbors.
Home loans: Minorities denied more often
Countywide, minority applicants faced a denial rate for home purchase loans nearly double those who are white. Some 7 percent of white applicants were denied for their home purchase loans, whereas nearly 13 percent of minority loan applicants were denied in 2012. White individuals applied for home purchase loans at seven times the rate for minority groups: 4,211 white individuals applied for home purchase loans vs. only 607 minority individuals. Minority applicants generally were denied for loans due to their credit history and debt. White applicants generally were denied due to lack of collateral.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Public transportation limits choice and income
Onondaga County’s only public transportation option is CENTRO. It is accessible within Syracuse, but is mostly cut off from the outer suburbs, where better jobs may be available, or work on second or third shifts may be offered. That leads to a low economic opportunity ranking for those who live in the city and rely on public transportation to get to work. In recent years, several housing projects have been built in communities where there are no retail or other job opportunities within walking distance, and there is little public transportation.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Renters spend too much on housing
There is a substantial unmet need for additional quality affordable rental housing in the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. Some 51 percent of renters face housing cost burden, which means more than 30 percent of their monthly income goes toward housing costs. Between 2010 and 2012, 25.8 percent of homeowners with a mortgage had a housing cost burden, compared to 51 percent of renters.
Though the county has made a concerted effort to offer more quality affordable rental housing, its efforts have still fallen short in some areas. The county has not committed to providing assistance to improve rental-housing options for households that are not special needs. Though housing costs are generally greater outside the city, residents in the city are more likely to have a housing cost burden. Individuals in extreme poverty often have trouble finding quality housing. Those who use Section 8 receive a voucher, but they tend to have difficulty in finding landlords who will accept Section 8.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
“When they saw we were African-American, their whole demeanor just changed,” Rivers said. “You can feel that. It’s not always spoken. They were thinking, ‘Who are these black people? I know you’re not about to rent to them.’”
He has thought about filing human rights complaints, but realizes his efforts likely wouldn’t come to fruition. Rivers believes he’d end up wasting his time instead of focusing his efforts on finding a house.
They did find a place last October and made a deposit, but Rivers realized afterward they couldn’t afford it. It’s another element when weighing the risks and rewards. Is it worth it to give up their current place in exchange for a new one? What if the new place doesn’t work out? Rivers balances all these factors in his head.
“You run on faith and you’re chasing a dream, but sometimes things fall through,” Rivers said. “Then we’re in a worse position than we were if we just stayed put.”
Rivers has spent hours, days and months trying to find a place. He knows he can do better. He knows that’s what his family deserves, and he feels responsible for making sure they find a house in the coming months.
“Sometimes I’m up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning looking for houses,” Rivers said. “I save money because I know eventually that house and that opportunity are going to come. I want to be ready for it. To go out and splurge and have fun, no, this is my fun right now, just listening to the chatter of my family.”
Top 3 priorities in finding a larger house
Charles Rivers lists the top three factors he considers when looking for a bigger house:
3. Public transportation
Syracuse University area
Some of the many reasons it’s tough:
1. Section 8
2. Lack of money
3. Finding a safe area