After two years, Nicole Lopez says she’s settled into a life where everything depends on her.
She has dreams — a home of her own with a nice backyard at the top of the list, maybe even in Florida — but for now life for her and two small kids is matter-of-fact and day-to-day in Pioneer Homes, the area’s sprawling downtown public housing complex. In a county where minorities are often clustered and face the longest odds to find good housing, good jobs and top schools, Pioneer and its more than 500 families provide plenty of examples.
Average household income there is just $10,000 a year, and 75 percent of residents are minority (60 percent African-American, 15 percent Hispanic). The numbers are a bit harsher than the city at large, but not by much considering that overall, 53 percent of kids in Syracuse are in homes below the poverty line and 21 percent of all households are headed by single mothers like Nicole. Those moms typically have a median income 50 percent lower than male-headed households and three times lower than couples.
For Nicole and many others here, the long odds are realized in long days.
Nicole, 25, starts her day early, getting her 6-year-old son ready for school and 2-year-old daughter set for daycare.
She spends her day working at a company that arranges transportation for Medicaid patients, calling cab services and organizing paperwork for the patients. She leaves work at around 5 p.m., and gathers her kids. Then it’s cooking, cleaning, homework, and bed.
But it wasn’t always like this. Nicole has been a single mother for just over two years. The father of her children was arrested during a police raid at their home in 2012. Two years later, she is still having a difficult time adjusting to being a single parent and the sole breadwinner in her house.
“It’s hard but I’ve learned how to cope with things and take it day by day. As long as my kids are OK, nothing else matters to me.”
Housing history in the city of Syracuse: Unfair past leads to unfair present
Many discriminatory practices and unfair policies in the last century have shaped Syracuse’s housing environment today — so much that it’s led Syracuse to becoming the ninth most segregated city in the country in 2010.
In the 1930s, neighborhoods were ranked based on their financial security. Race played a big factor in these rankings, where neighborhoods with mostly African-Americans were considered high financial risks. These high-risk, predominantly African-American neighborhoods were colored in red on the residential security maps, which is where the term “redlining” is believed to have come from. These evaluations, by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, were intended to prevent foreclosures. The side effect was creating racial segregation for housing opportunities. Having African-Americans in wealthier neighborhoods meant having others’ home values decrease. As a result, landlords and homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods would refuse to sell homes or rent to African-Americans. Redlined areas were the city’s Near Westside and the 15th Ward. Syracuse’s South and West Sides, along with the suburban areas in Galeville, Mattydale, East Syracuse, Solvay and Nedrow, were colored yellow, just a grade above being redlined.
New York State’s first public housing project was in the 15th Ward, a redlined neighborhood. This would start the trend of creating public housing in neighborhoods that also had very low opportunity for growth — making the situation a lot worse. The 15th Ward was destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, to make space for Interstate 81. As nearly 1,300 displaced residents moved into other areas, white residents left in fear of having their home values decrease.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods
The CNY Fair Housing Report identified six impediments to fair housing in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Impediment 1 is a straightforward problem with not-so straightforward solutions: “The economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods restricts housing choice for many low-income, disabled, and minority residents,” the report said. The report proposes two main ideas: Expand opportunity in these low-income neighborhoods, and spread out affordable housing to areas where opportunities are greater.
The report says: It is important to note that while the immediate concern of this analysis relates to housing opportunity and the majority of recommendations concern housing policies and practices, addressing economic and educational barriers is also critical. The educational opportunity a child receives is determined by the neighborhood they live in, and the neighborhood a family chooses is determined by the economic resources they have and educational resources their child will have access to.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Subsidized housing is concentrated in the city of Syracuse
Subsidized housing units are those developed through the public housing program, while the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program or LIHTC provides tax credits for investors who invest in building affordable rental housing. These projects are geared toward low-income populations; LIHTC is more targeted to populations such as the elderly and the disabled.
CNY Fair Housing found that Syracuse has a significantly larger percentage of affordable housing units through these programs than in Onondaga County. Most of the HUD subsidized and LIHTC units are located in areas of low opportunity. However, there is a distinction between target and non-targeted LIHTC. Most of the targeted-LIHTC properties are spread more throughout the county because many suburban communities tend to not resist building affordable housing for seniors and disabled than for families. This leaves many families limited to find affordable housing in the city.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Born and raised in Syracuse, Nicole has had to take care of herself since she was 17.
About 600 families live in Pioneer Homes, 500 children among them. It was the first public housing development in New York state and one of the first five built in the country.
Built in 1938, it became fully occupied in 1940 and housed close to 700 families. Located in the former 15th Ward neighborhood of Syracuse, it was a neighborhood made up largely of African-Americans who migrated from the South. The neighborhood today continues to be predominately African-American.
CNY Fair Housing, the local nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in the area, especially for minorities, families, seniors and the disabled, marks the building of Pioneer Homes as an example of the beginning of a trend that sought to place public housing in areas that, while facing disproportionate housing needs, also had disproportionately low levels of opportunity. There is four times more subsidized housing in the city than the suburbs.
Since it was built, Pioneer has gone through many changes and renovations.
In 1967, to make room for the construction of Interstate 81, five apartment buildings were demolished. Then in the early 90s it underwent major renovations. Pioneer Homes now has 214 one-bedroom units and 398 family units for a total of 612 apartments.
Experience at Pioneer Homes
Nicole describes her experience living in Pioneer Homes with ambivalence. She is grateful for the apartment and having a roof over her children’s heads but she aspires to someday leave the housing project and live in a house.
Lopez was on the waiting list for an apartment at Pioneer Homes for three years before she was placed in the two-bedroom apartment on Stewart Court.
“It was a long wait to get an apartment here, and I know some people who had to wait even longer,” Lopez said. The waiting list is currently over a year long, according to David Paccone, the executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority.
After two years at Pioneer Homes, Lopez hopes to one day have enough resources to leave and get a house with a backyard for her children to play.
“At times it gets crowded and noisy, especially in the summer. Everyone is outside on their stoop and people having barbecues,” Lopez said. “It can get a little too much sometimes. I know that I can’t let my son go outside by himself and play because it is not safe.”
Lopez’s son, Jonathan, 6, wants to play outside but knows he can’t. “It too crowded here, and people fight,” he said.
Jonathan, who attends Dr. King Elementary School just a few blocks away from the apartment, says he wants to be a police officer. He said if he could live anywhere it would be Florida, where his grandmother lives.
“There is a lot of space, and grass and trees,” Jonathan said.
But finances are tough. When Lopez first moved to Pioneer Homes she was unemployed and paid the minimum $50 for rent. However, rent in public housing is based on your income and she now pays close to $500 a month.
“I don’t think that’s fair actually because I’m a single parent with two kids … and it’s too much,” she said.
“Pioneer is good for now but if I had the opportunity to leave Syracuse I probably would, (for a) better future for my kids, for myself. …”
Lopez said she has enrolled in classes at Bryant & Stratton College and is looking to pursue a degree in criminal studies.
“I could become a probation officer or corrections officer. But I’d like to work with juveniles because I think I could give them advice and steer them on the right path.”