In the front hallway of Rashida Mims’ house at 119 Kellogg St., written in blue marker on a whiteboard by her 17-year-old son, is a Bible verse that helps keep her centered in her crumbling home.
“Blessed are all who fear the Lord who walk in obedience to him,” the verses from Psalm 128 read. “You will eat the fruit of your blessings and prosperity will be yours.”
Taped to the wall below: a letter from the Onondaga County Department of Health about lead hazards in the house. The landlord has been fined once already but the lead paint’s still there — just like it was when Mims, a single mother, moved into the house with her nine children nearly two years ago.
Mims had to close off the back staircase because of the lead paint, and now a week’s worth of recycling and garbage blocks the stairs. The laundry room has lead paint too, in addition to a section of exposed beams and pipes in the ceiling from a half-finished repair job.
“It’s not fair because we still have to pay for rent and the kids need a place to stay,” she said.
Mims had some of her kids tested for lead last year and said all their levels were within the acceptable range, but she needs to get them all re-tested this year.
The notice from the county states that the landlord failed to show up to a Feb. 5 hearing, where the Onondaga County Health Department found the landlord had violated Public Health Law and the Sanitary Code of the State of New York by having lead hazards in the house. The landlord was given until May 15 to reduce the lead hazards. If not, there will be a fine of $200 plus another $200 fine from a July 2014 violation.
The house is owned by 119 Kellogg LLC, which bought the property for $1,000 in March 2013, just a few months before Mims moved in, Onondaga County property records show. New York State corporation records show 119 Kellogg LLC is registered to an apartment address in Brooklyn. The property has more than $25,000 in unpaid property taxes dating back to 2006, records show.
Mims declined to provide the name of her landlord because she didn’t want to cause any trouble. She said the landlord stops by once a month to pick up the rent.
Myhousingmatters.com has filed a request with the New York State Division of Corporations for 119 Kellogg LLC’s articles of organization.
Removing lead from a house can be an expensive project. In October, Syracuse learned that it would lose funding for the lead abatement program it has run for the past 20 years. The program had overseen the removal of lead from more than 2,500 Syracuse homes and apartments at a cost of about $15,000 per home, according to an Oct. 2 syracuse.com article. City residents can still apply to Onondaga County for help with lead removal.
Mims Family Photo Gallery
The lead paint may be one of the house’s biggest problems but it’s far from the only one: the exposed pipes and ceiling in the laundry room, the broken window pane in the room off the kitchen, at least three doors that are no longer attached to the door frames, the windows in her daughter’s bedroom that had to be caulked because it got so cold they could see their breath, the rotting wood throughout the house that Mims worries will fall and hit her children.
But as much as she sometimes worries about her children inside the house, Mims worries more about the area outside. Mims moved aside her washing machine and a piece of cinderblock and disabled an alarm to reveal for a visitor a set of stairs that lead to a door to her side yard.
Bits of sunlight stream through cracks in the old, wood door, and Mims said several people have tried to break into the house that way — including a few times when the family was home. Beyond the side door, one side of her backyard fence has been knocked down — probably by someone looking for copper pipes to sell, Mims guessed.
The small backyard isn’t really big enough for her children — who range in age from 8 months to 17 years old — to play in, and Mims doesn’t like them playing in front of the house because of the violence in the Near Westside neighborhood. She can’t afford a car now but would love to have a car by the summer so she can drive her kids to the park when they want to go outside.
“Last summer we were ducking bullets,” she says.
A necessary move to the Near Westside
The move to the Near Westside was mostly out of necessity. Mims and her kids were living in a house on the South Side, where Mims grew up. But the house was making the kids sick. Mims never figured out exactly what it was — possibly mold — but she knew she needed to move.
Finding a house for 10 people is not easy and most of the houses Mims looked at that were big enough for her family were too expensive. Most of the other seven- bedroom houses she looked at cost around $2,500 a month. She found the house on Kellogg Street through a friend for less than half the cost of any other she looked at. She pays $1,000 a month in rent.
119 Kellogg Street is located in a census tract with low levels of opportunity in housing, employment and education, according to data from the 2014 CNY Fair Housing report.
Mims could afford the rent with her job as a patient care aide at Syracuse ElderChoice. She was working 40 hours a week and making $9.50 an hour. But the 12-hour, occasionally overnight shifts were getting to be too much. During one overnight shift, she got a call from the police: Her stove was on fire, a result of her 13-year-old son trying to cook while she was out.
After that, Mims told ElderChoice she was done working 12-hour shifts; the most she could do was eight hours. She said the company wasn’t able to make that work and she stopped working there at the end of February.
Her only other source of income is the small bits of money she can make as a representative for Avon, a beauty company. But that job is more valuable because of the discounted products she gets through the company, she said.
She’s been applying to a few jobs at Upstate University Hospital but hasn’t heard back yet so she’s considering filing for unemployment. Mims didn’t work a single day in March and was going to have trouble making the rent.
Syracuse old homes create a problem
The quality of an area’s housing stock is defined by such things as age and accessibility. In the city of Syracuse, 45 percent of existing homes were built in 1939 or earlier, making it significantly older than the Onondaga County housing stock overall. Given the age of homes in Syracuse, the city itself can be stuck with the burden of keeping the housing stock up to date. Because only 5.6 percent of all housing units in Syracuse were built after stricter accessibility standards were adopted in 1991, keeping the housing stock up to date also requires more accessible housing units offered by the city. The outdated nature of the Syracuse housing stock puts families, seniors and disabled tenants at a disadvantage.
The chart displays how the housing stock in the city of Syracuse compares to Onondaga County.
City of Syracuse
• 45% Built 1939 or earlier
• 14.80% Built 1940-1949
• 15.70% Built 1950-1959
• 7.60% Built 1960-1969
• 8.90% Built 1970-1979
• 2.50% Built 1980-1989
• 3.70% Built 1990-1999
• 1.30% Built 2000-2004
• 0.60% Built 2005 or later
• 25.10% Built 1939 or earlier
• 8.20% Built 1940-1949
• 17% Built 1950-1959
• 12.40% Built 1960-1969
• 13.50% Built 1970-1979
• 9.70% Built 1980-1989
• 7.30% Built 1990-1999
• 4.10% Built 2000-2004
• 2.80% Built 2005 or later
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Family status, gender, marital status: In the city, patterns can favor discrimination
Varying levels in family composition across Onondaga County can lead to discrimination based on familial status, gender or marital status. In the city of Syracuse, 21 percent of households are single-mother-headed and 24 percent are married. Comparatively, in Onondaga County as a whole, 14 percent of families are single-mother-headed and 43 percent are married. The number of households with children is fairly even in the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County, but within city neighborhoods the percentage of families with children varies. On average, 29 percent of households in the city have children, whereas neighborhoods such as the South Side, Near Westside and North Side are in the 43 percent to 58 percent range.
— 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
She filed for welfare in mid-March.
“I grew up on welfare,” Mims says. “I wanted to give my children the opportunity to not grow up on welfare so they know that’s not the way to live.”
The Mims family
Her kids have three different fathers. Mims said one was killed in a shooting, and the other two are around but don’t provide much help with money. Mims was married for seven years until 2011, but said she felt like a single mother long before the divorce.
Still, her family is close, Mims said. She home-schooled her kids until 2010, when their test results came back low and the state suggested she send them to public school. No school in Syracuse had room for all nine kids, so they’re scattered at five different ones throughout the district.
Her oldest, Rashid, 17, has dreamed of playing basketball at Syracuse University ever since some Syracuse basketball players came to the local YMCA to play with some of the kids there. A sophomore at Henninger High School, Rashid hopes to make the school team next year. He plays basketball almost every day after school and says he likes that you get to run around and that it keeps him out of trouble.
His younger brothers also dream of being professional athletes. Nehemiah, 6, wants to be a football player; Isaiah, 7, wants to be a soccer player; and William, 11, and Jemelle, 13, both want to be basketball players.
Mims’ oldest daughter Tarea, 15, wants to be a nurse because she likes helping people. But she also loves fashion and Mims said she could be a model. Tarea’s younger sister, Talitha, 9, wants to be a doctor.
Mims graduated from Henninger and went to Bryant & Stratton College in Buffalo, where she was majoring in computer programming. Programming came easy to her and she liked working behind the scenes. She said she was one semester away from graduating when she became pregnant with her oldest child, Rashid. Mims never finished her degree.
But she’d still like to go back to school and has been looking at some programs at Onondaga Community College. Mims thinks she would want to get a degree in financial management or business administration, something where her experience managing money as a single mother would be helpful. She wants to break the stigma about single moms and show that not all single moms are bad single moms, she said.
“All I do, I do for my children,” Mims said. “I want the best for my kids, I really, really do. I want them to be able to look back on their past and say, ‘We did it.’”
Residents can get help from Onondaga County’s lead abatement program
Since 2001, Onondaga County has operated a lead abatement program that offers county residents assistance with removing lead from their homes. The program receives about 180 applications a year and accepts about 100 of them, said Tony Mueller, the program coordinator.
Applicants must meet several requirements, including having a household income of no more than 80 percent of the median income for the county. For a family of four, that limit is $54,800. Both renters and homeowners are eligible, Mueller said.
The cost of removing lead from houses ranges from a few hundred dollars to as much as $25,000, Mueller said. The help the program gives comes in the form of a five-year deferred loan.
In October, Syracuse learned that it would lose funding for the lead abatement program it has run for the past 20 years. Most of the work the county program does is in Syracuse because of the city’s old housing stock, but Mueller said he hasn’t noticed an increase in program applicants since October.
County residents primarily find out about the program through word of mouth, but Mueller noted that the program is good for the whole county, even those who don’t have lead in their houses.
“There’s been studies that say for every dollar invested in lead hazard reduction, you can save taxpayers anywhere from $15 to $200,” he said. “(The program) has really proven itself whether it’s maintaining property values or long-term health.”
Lead poisoning is a significant problem in the Syracuse area because of the city’s aging housing stock and the lack of awareness, said Maureen Butler, program coordinator at the Central/Eastern New York Lead Poisoning Resource Center.
Even low levels of lead in the bloodstream — often caused by ingesting or inhaling lead paint — can lead to growth and development problems for children that last a lifetime, Butler added.
“The problem is, at the time the kids are getting the lead exposure, they’re not getting any symptoms. I’ve often said that I wish that when the kids were actively being exposed they’d get some terrible rash or their nose would run or something but you just don’t know.”
Lead poisoning doesn’t cause any immediate symptoms and the effects can often take years to show up. The effects caused by lead poisoning are not universal — children with the same level of lead in the bloodstream often experience very different symptoms or no symptoms at all, Butler said.
Extreme levels of lead exposure can cause a child’s brain to swell and some children have died, though deaths are extremely rare, Butler said.
But even low levels of lead exposure can affect the brain’s functions in some young children, making it harder for them to follow instructions or switch between different tasks. This can cause a child to struggle as early as pre-school and these problems can follow children for the rest of their lives, Butler said.
Adults can be affected by lead exposure, too, particularly pregnant mothers. Research has found that mothers who are exposed to lead can pass that on to their unborn child, Butler said.
The New York State Department of Health recommends the following when it comes to testing children for lead exposure:
• All children age six months to six years should be assessed for their exposure to lead by being questioned by their doctor. If the doctor finds the child may have been exposed to lead, a test should be administrated.
• Every child should get a lead test at 1 and 2 years old, regardless of risk level.
The treatment for lead poisoning depends on how high a child’s levels are, but the main treatment is to identify the source of the lead and get the child away from it, Butler said.
In Syracuse, this can often be the lead paint found in many of the city’s older houses. Lead paint was outlawed in 1978 but the age of houses in Syracuse makes it more prevalent in the city. More than 90 percent of the city’s houses were built before 1979, compared to 57.2 percent nationally, according to the CNY Fair Housing 2014 report.
In more serious cases, medication can be used to help get the lead out of a child’s system but this is rare — the area the resource center covers only sees about 15 to 20 of these extreme cases every year, Butler said.
The issue of lead poisoning remains a significant problem in the Syracuse area, though it has improved some since Butler first started doing lead poisoning work more than 20 years ago.
“But as long as we have these sources of lead available to these children, it’s going to continue,” she said. “That’s the problem.”