When Sarah Walton and her roommate began their hunt for an apartment in the city of Syracuse, they were overjoyed to come across Kasson and Leavenworth Place Apartments on James Street right off the edge of downtown Syracuse.
“Premier Upscale, Modern Apartments with Designer Finishes.”
That’s the way the apartment complex at 615-622 James was advertised, and that’s exactly what Walton signed up for. One visit and 48 hours from the time she set eyes on the unit of her choosing, the 24-year-old was the leaseholder in her brand new two-bedroom home, where the rent is $1,124 per month.
“It all happened rather quickly,” Walton recalls. “We got to see the rooms before they even asked us any information.”
Walton felt confident in her decision and that “this was it.”
Somewhere between touring the complex and signing her lease, she does recall management saying it was trying to attract a “diverse group of people.”
Unbeknownst to Walton, that was management’s oblique way of sharing with her the complex and widely unexplored topic of mixed-rate housing in the city of Syracuse.
A brief history
In 2011, Conifer Realty won approval from the Syracuse Common Council for tax breaks in exchange for renovating two empty buildings just off downtown, structures that had once been a low-income development. Under the agreement between the council and the developer, Conifer would deliver a complex where 65 units would be available to new tenants at market rate and the city would offer a tax break on 11 units reserved for families under the median income, including those who qualify for Section 8, the federal subsidies that typically pay about two-thirds of the rent for tenants. (An additional seven affordable units were made available and monitored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD).
The initial plans for the deal involving the city, HUD and Conifer were detailed in a 2012-2013 Department of Neighborhood and Business Development (NBD) document.
Mixed-income housing, introduced by HUD, is intended to provide financially disadvantaged families with an opportunity to move out of concentrated low-income neighborhoods and into better ones that offer not only better housing, but also access to improved schools and work opportunities. It’s a social and cultural change, too, bringing together diverse incomes that might not otherwise mix — at least not where they live.
At Kasson and Leavenworth, tenants with statistically lower economic opportunities can reap the same living benefits as tenants like Walton, a fresh college graduate with an annual salary over $36,000. This concept of mixed-income housing, complex as it is, was summed up as a “diverse target” to Walton in 2013, when she moved into the city’s sole mixed-income property.
Kasson and Leavenworth Place Apartments on James Street in Syracuse offer mixed-income housing.|Steve Davis, staff photo
Under the rent limits outlined for 2014 by the federal HUD program, affordable rates at the Kasson and Leavenworth buildings are capped monthly at $577 for studio units, $626 for one-bedroom units and $762 for two-bedroom units. The 2015 rent limits for these buildings have not yet been released, according to Paul Driscoll, commissioner of NBD in Syracuse. The rates for market-priced units at Kasson and Leavenworth begin at $660 for studio units, $870 for one-bedroom units and $1,030 for two-bedroom units.
At the time of the building’s resurrection, the pull of mixed-income housing was the premier draw to finalize the April 2011 deal in a city that has long focused on economic redevelopment.
Driscoll said he was proud of the city’s first official mixed-income project in some 20 years.
Yet, these housing opportunities are not being promoted on the development’s advertisements, nor do they seem to be explicitly mentioned to prospective tenants at their lease signings.
Today, the corridors of Kasson Place and that of its adjacent neighbor, Leavenworth, are relatively quiet at all hours of the day. When asked if they were aware of the mixed economic makeup of the building, residents Ashley Skolky, Ron Castle and Asia Melton were all in the dark about the building’s unique situation.
Conifer’s manager of the two buildings agreed to an interview in February, and then canceled, referring a reporter to her own higher-ups. A secretary with Conifer, after four separate calls, said everyone was too busy to discuss how the developer promotes the arrangement and how it assures all the units are filled according to the agreement.
Success in a neighboring city
Syracuse’s upstate neighbor, Rochester, has a different model for mixed-income housing programs — and a very open approach. The Urban League of Rochester (ULR), a not-for-profit economic development organization, runs a mixed-income apartment complex in a city undergoing revitalization.
Arrangements there are readily transparent to everyone, and at every step of the process. Accountability is a priority.
Maxine Davidson, 57, is a case in point. She first came across The Mills at High Falls complex when she started on a quest to find a wheelchair-accessible complex for her sister. After touring a unit, though, it was Davidson who wanted to pursue The Mills as a new home.
“My sister wanted to keep looking, but I loved the place.”
Becoming a leaseholder, she discovered, was quite complex in a mixed-income complex, with waiting and rejection — and all of it part of a plan to assure goals were met and processes followed. When Davidson expressed interest in a unit of her own, she was turned away; the leasing agent informed her that she did not meet the income guidelines for the handicap-friendly unit she was interested in. This is when Davidson came face to face with the signature characteristic of a well-maintained, mixed-rate housing complex. She was not financially under-qualified, but over-qualified.
Davidson, herself a homeowner of 30 years, was told that she did not qualify for the available unit because her home was considered an asset. “I was bummed. I had my mind set,” Davidson said.
Disappointed that she was rejected from “the perfect unit,” but unwilling to abandon the idea of living at The Mills, Davidson reached out to the leasing office to thank them for giving her a tour, and asked that they keep her in mind.
Weeks later, Davidson’s phone rang. She was asked to view a two-bedroom apartment more suitable for her income status. The new unit was more than she was willing to pay in the beginning, but with an understanding of the building’s unique qualifications, Davidson was not going to pass up the opportunity.
“The rest was history,” Davidson said.
According to Carolyn Vitale, vice president and chief operating officer at the Urban League of Rochester, “keeping your eye on the ball” when managing a mixed-income development is half of the battle. The Mills is one of the two buildings under the organization’s mixed-income project.
One-bedroom units at The Mills range from $590 to $900 a month, while two- bedroom ones run from $640 to $1,090 a month. The units reserved for prospective tenants at The Mills fall into five income brackets to cover a wide range of income levels above and below market rates — a sharp and public distinction, unlike the arrangement with the private developer in Syracuse who is not inclined to discuss it.
“Once you commit to a project like this, you have to be heavily invested,” Vitale said. This diligence is truly put to the test when management is facing a situation where there are units that must be filled from one of the lower income brackets, even when there are others who can pay a lot more waiting in line. They are turned away in order to preserve the integrity of a genuinely mixed-income complex.
It’s a test that Davidson experienced firsthand.
For the Urban League of Rochester, maintaining transparency and income diversity among tenants does not stop at the signing of a lease. The complex, which has 67 units and several different floor plans, is often at 100 percent occupancy. Offerings are not set aside for particular income groups. Management at the Urban League said this is important to providing an equal living experience to the tenants of the Mills, regardless of their income status, a philosophy shared by residents.
“Sometimes I look at it from the perspective of, ‘I’m paying twice what someone else is paying because I didn’t qualify for the lower-income bracket.’ But then I accept that it has to meet individual circumstances to be successful for everyone,” Davidson said of her rent, which the developer asked her not to share due to the sensitive nature of income brackets at The Mills.
Funding the difference
While Syracuse and Rochester have mixed-rate housing projects designed to serve the same mission, there are other differences than the degree of openness.
At Kasson and Leavenworth Place in Syracuse, Conifer is the developer while the city and HUD serve as limited partners. Driscoll explained that Kasson and Leavenworth Place is a project maintained by the city and policed federally by HUD. According to Driscoll, the city’s money is tied to ensuring the 11 affordable units. Should tenant records show that the affordable units are not appropriately occupied, it is the city’s responsibility to foreclose on them.
As a stipulation of the 15-year agreement struck in the 2011 deal, Conifer is responsible for paying the city $20,000 a year. That means at the end of the 15-year period, Conifer will have repaid the city $300,000. With the city absorbing the brunt of the tax payments, instead, Conifer will have saved a total of some $1.7 million it would have otherwise paid in taxes during the 15-year period.
Driscoll explained a system of checks and balances where HUD has the final responsibility to ensure compliance. It starts with the city asking for confirmation once a year that the 11 units are filled by qualified tenants. That report is then sent to HUD, which at any time can audit the city’s report. Based on the findings, HUD could continue to confirm the deal or raise concerns. According to the Business and Neighborhood Development’s official report to HUD in June 2014, the 11 units were at 100 percent occupancy as of the city’s last inspection in April 2014.
Subsidized housing concentrated in low-opportunity areas
Low-income families often receive subsidies to find affordable housing. These subsidies can also mean tax breaks for developers who provide affordable homes or participate in public housing programs.
The issue is that these subsidized housing units are usually provided in the city, which does not provide the greatest opportunity. Of the 4,598 HUD-subsidized units in Onondaga County, 86 percent of them are in the city of Syracuse. 54 percent of households in the county receiving housing assistance of some kind are in very low housing opportunity neighborhoods; 41 percent are in areas of very low educational outcomes; and 43 percent are in areas of very low economic opportunity.
People of little means have faint hope that things will get better when they live in an area where there is little opportunity to improve.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
The lack of accessible, affordable housing is a significant barrier to finding housing for people with disabilities
A barrier to fair housing is the lack of accessible, affordable housing for people with disabilities, particularly those with lower incomes. This is largely because much of the housing in Syracuse is old and was built before accessibility standards were put in place. As the population of Onondaga County continues to age, this lack of accessible housing will only become more significant.
To remedy this problem, CNY Fair Housing recommends offering incentives to developers that build accessible units at all cost ranges; creating a state tax credit to encourage private development of single-family homes to meet accessibility standards; and educating landlords and housing developers on the importance of creating accessible housing. It would also be beneficial to create tenant protections for people with disabilities so they would be able to vacate their lease if they required more accessible housing.
— 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
In Rochester, The Mills serves as the general partner, the property developer and the manager. The units are under hands-on watch by the organization itself. The funding for the all-new project initiated by the ULR came mostly in the form of tax-exempt bonds acquired by the organization and four percent in the form of tax credits from the city of Rochester.
According to Vitale, the success of a tax-credit project such as The Mills in Rochester is indicative of the closeness of the developer and management, who combined have much invested in the development.
“You have to put your skin in the game when you develop projects like this,” Vitale said.
That is not exactly how Driscoll determines the success or failure of a mixed market project in a city such as Syracuse. “It serves as a function of our economy,” Driscoll said. “The difference between market and affordable rates in a place like Syracuse is not as stark as it would be in other cities, making it harder to fund the affordable aspect of it.”
Sarah Walton, meanwhile, is one who appreciates the concept, even under circumstances where she is unaware of it.
She’s the director of operations at the Syracuse Northeast Community Center, which serves an area of the city that includes many immigrants and refugees. She attended Syracuse University and decided to stay in town after graduating.
She said she holds closely the importance of living among a diverse group — even though, ironically, she did not even know she was living in a complex intended to foster just that until a reporter told her.
“I truly believe that the quality of life improves when you have different people, from all walks of life, mixed together,” Walton said.