Until Rickey Brown did it — twice, eventually — no one else in his immediate family or preceding generations could make the claim.
The 42-year-old black resident of Syracuse bought a house.
He’s the only one to own the home he lives in, which makes him an exception indeed: Only 29.9 percent of African-American households in the city own the home they live in, a rate far less than the 71.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
Brown’s situation is not just unusual. It’s an accomplishment in the face of long odds, according to the recent CNY Fair Housing “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing.” The report notes that when it comes to mortgage applications, “In nearly every town and the City of Syracuse, minority applicants (have) much lower origination rates and much higher denial and frustration rates than non-Hispanic whites. Countywide, minority applicants faced a denial rate nearly double that of white applicants. ” Even when they seek home improvement loans, blacks have been denied or frustrated at almost twice the rate of whites countywide: 54 percent to 34 percent.
Some 51 percent of black city residents have what is considered very low housing and neighborhood opportunity, compared to just 10 percent of non-Hispanic whites. These black residents pour rent money — often more than 30 percent of their income and frequently more than half of it — into someone else’s property in neighborhoods with high poverty, among old and often vacant homes.
Growing up as one of six kids on the South Side of Syracuse in a family that always paid rent, Brown never even considered or thought about homeownership. A path had been set generations before by government redlining practices and disinvestment in parts of the city with large black populations in the 1930s that were colored red on maps, considered highest risk for home loan guarantees, and later, the destruction of the 15th Ward, a historically black neighborhood, to make way for Interstate 81 in the 1950s and 1960s.
But now that Brown works at Home HeadQuarters on James Street as the director of community engagement, helping people manage their homes, homeownership education and outreach are all that he does. He also works with minority- and women-owned businesses to help them find opportunities and takes clients through his “Paid in Full” course, a financial literacy class.
Because of his own experiences growing up and the experiences of the people he helps, Brown wants to show his kids and his clients why and how homeownership is important.
“(Homeownership) became more of a challenge. I became sort of obsessed with ‘We have to leave something for our children. There has to be a legacy and there has to be something left.’ … Homeownership is bigger than ‘I own a house.’ ”
In doing what he does now — and by living in Syracuse today, combined with part of a childhood spent in Orlando, Florida — Brown knows how race can, either covertly or overtly, affect housing, education and opportunity for minorities.
Brown says he loves the city, and believes in the city, and he plans to spend the rest of his life there.
Yet, he actually owns two houses now, one in Solvay and one on the North Side of Syracuse, on Lemoyne Avenue. He spends his nights in the Lemoyne house while his kids and his long-term partner, Amie, spend most of their time in the Solvay house, though he noted the houses are only 15 minutes apart.
Brown recalls the story of shopping around for his first house and his experience with the real estate agent.
In 2009, Brown was shopping for his first home in the historically Irish Tipperary Hill neighborhood in Syracuse. He didn’t realize it at the moment, but says it later dawned on him that the agent was guiding him away from the Tip Hill neighborhood.
“So I would walk into a house and (the agent) would say, ‘That was this one, hope you liked it, let’s go,’ really quick, and it was like ‘Woah, we didn’t look yet’ … It was that sort of thing,” Brown recalled.
In the end, Brown was partially grateful. His experience showed him that had he bought a house in Tip Hill, he would’ve been locked into it — and a neighborhood that may not have wanted him — for 30 years because of the mortgage.
“(The agent) did me the biggest favor rushing through. Is it fair? Was it out-and-out discriminatory in terms of the way it happened? Not necessarily. But did it influence my decision to buy in that neighborhood? Absolutely. Or not to buy in that neighborhood? Absolutely.”
And that subtlety is one of the keys to understanding Syracuse, Brown says. Such discriminatory practices accumulate and result in concentrations of minorities or the impoverished in neighborhoods. The not-so-subtle result: segregation.
“When you have poverty, crime will follow. When you have condensed poverty and condensed crime, you breed a ghetto. When you breed a ghetto, you’re going to get the segregations that you have (in Syracuse),” Brown says today.
Brown said he didn’t realize what had happened at first; the discrimination was so subtle that it almost went right over his head.
“It’s very subtle. … The suggestion goes from ‘You don’t want to see this’ to ‘Why don’t you let me take you to a house on the South Side? Why don’t I get you somewhere where you can purchase a house?’ ” Brown said.
“And that (moment) is where you’re going to understand. … It was so far over my head. In my head I was like ‘Oh, I’m glad he did that because there was no driveway.’ It had nothing to do with the driveway.”
In Syracuse, Brown says he’s seen how this kind of subtle discrimination permeates more than housing. It can affect jobs and ultimately most anything.
‘HARD TO LEARN’
He eventually purchased the Lemoyne Avenue house in a short sale by a bank that was foreclosing on the property. But, the choice of housing put his two children — 7-year-old Ajanni and 11-year-old Amanni — into the Syracuse City School District, a consequence that would eventually force Brown to buy the second house in Solvay. Because of the city home’s location, Ajanni was assigned to Porter Elementary School and Amanni was assigned to Grant Middle School. They could not have been more different.
“I do have a second property that we bought specifically because unfortunately the challenges with the SCSD. So while I champion the district, I would never disparage it… (but) there are problems,” Brown acknowledges.
He had a few problems in mind: poor leadership, chaotic learning environments and unequal opportunity between the city and the suburbs.
Particularly painful: As students themselves, Brown and partner Amie had a good experience with city schools.
Brown attended Henninger High School and went on to graduate from Syracuse University in 1996. Amie attended Nottingham High School and would have graduated in 2003. She didn’t graduate due to personal reasons, but she remembered school being a lot different than the way it is today.
“(School) was definitely nothing like it is today. When I was in high school, it was pretty orderly. The kids weren’t so disrespectful,” Amie said.
She saw the disorder at Grant Middle School firsthand, when she sat through one day of Amanni’s classes. “I was shocked at the things I was seeing.”
Amanni was getting into trouble — and Amie wanted to learn why. What she observed surprised her.
“(The teachers) tried to keep order, but it was not working out. The kids were yelling at the teachers, calling the teachers names. They were playing music, they were using vulgar language. And the teachers, honestly, they couldn’t do anything about it. There was nothing they could do about it,” Amie said.
Teachers were permitted to step out of the rooms if they were struggling or class was breaking down, and Amie’s experience was telling. “Out of all, I think (Amanni) had nine classes, not one teacher got through one lesson. Nobody turned in any work.”
Amanni was happy that he was able to go to a different school. Even at 11, he recognized what was happening and knew how it would affect him.
“The classes … we didn’t learn anything. There was always something going on. You could never learn anything. … It was really hard to learn,” Amanni said. At Solvay now, Amanni can concentrate on learning and on math, his favorite subject. “There’s more calm and it’s not always crazy,” he said. “(At Grant) I would’ve never got anywhere.”
Brown ended up buying the house in Solvay in 2014 so the kids could attend Solvay Elementary School and Solvay Middle School.
“I feel like you’re sacrificing my child to put him in that environment. His difference in grades (at Solvay) is a complete 180. … Within 30 days we had to pull him out of (Grant). (It was) bad enough to buy a new house. … That says a lot.”
Difference between Solvay schools and SCSD
Solvay School District
2012 — Percent of 4th-grade reading proficiency: 46%
2012 — Percent of 4th-grade math proficiency: 64%
2012 — Average classroom size: 19
2011 — High school graduation rate: 85%
2012 — Percent of 4th-grade reading proficiency: 28%
2012 — Percent of 4th-grade math proficiency: 35%
2012 — Average classroom size: 23 students
2011 — High school graduation rate: 51%
A FAILURE IN LEADERSHIP
Though Brown ended up making the decision based on Grant, at the same time, he was so thrilled with the turnaround in quality at Porter that he considered keeping his kids in the SCSD.
“I almost would not send my son to (Porter). That school at the time had done notoriously bad. Were it not for my son in (Grant), I would’ve still been in the SCSD because Porter Elementary did such a phenomenal job of turning around.”
Brown says he blames not the schools and the teachers, but the city’s leadership.
“The district lost two great students … to the detriment of the city. You’ve lost an exodus of people that want to settle in the city,” Brown said. When the leadership makes mistakes that keep talented students outside the district, the community suffers, parents suffer, and the children end up as the casualties, he noted.
But even though he ended up pulling his kids out of the SCSD and has experienced both direct racism in Orlando and indirect discrimination in Syracuse, Rickey Brown has nothing but love for the city that he calls home.
“I purchased my first home in the city because I believe strongly in the district. … The first thing I’m going to always start with is ‘I am a prideful native Syracuse son.’ ”
Rickey Brown on growing up in the segregated South
Though he was born in Syracuse, Rickey Brown spent most of his childhood in Orlando, Florida, where he lived from about 1977-1987. When he moved up to Syracuse and started high school, he said it was much more welcoming. He was referring to the racism he experienced as child growing up in the South.
Just before Brown and his family left, one experience let them know that moving to Syracuse was the right idea. One afternoon, a group of young men chased Brown and his sister home after school for no reason, he says, other than that Brown and his sister were black.