“Where you live determines where you work, where you go to school …. EVERYTHING.”


Judge McKinney reads court documents in his office.|Frank Ordoñez, courtesy of Syracuse Media Group

Syracuse’s history of housing segregation, economic inequality leaves poor communities stuck


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Syracuse: Ninth most segregated city in America.

Why? How can that be? Why do whites and blacks live apart? Why are Hispanics clustered on the west side, and so many African-Americans on the south end?

Are we a city of racists? Discriminators?

For retired City Court Judge Langston McKinney, first black judge in Syracuse, the answer a half-century ago was “yes.” He moved to Syracuse in 1965 from the segregated South to become the first black chemist at the Carrier Corporation.

Job One: Find a home. It went well over the phone with a landlord, but when McKinney met her in person he was turned away, told it was a women-only unit.

“I said ‘You knew I was a guy when we talked on the phone. What does that have to do with anything?’ ” McKinney said. “And she said ‘I just can’t rent it to you.’ ”

Two years later, nothing had changed. Again looking for a place to live, McKinney responded to a newspaper ad. He was turned away, yet a white colleague shown the very same apartment found the landlord was willing.

Demographic patterns: Populations are concentrated by race and ethnicity

The Syracuse metropolitan statistical area is the ninth most racially segregated community in the country. As with other Rust Belt cities, suburban sprawl and white flight have left segregation in their wake here. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Syracuse has a segregation index of 71, which means that 71 percent of blacks in the community would have to move to a different neighborhood to be distributed similar to whites. Using a different index, the average Syracuse non-Hispanic white resident lives in a remarkably unmixed neighborhood that is 90 percent white, 4 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic compared to the average black person who lives in a neighborhood that is 47 percent white, 39 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. The report concludes that such segregation can create isolation and discrimination.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Housing opportunity index: Minorities isolated in “low opportunity” areas

The CNY Fair Housing report created an index to determine the “housing opportunity” for residents in the county. It measures the quality of housing and the ability to freely move and relocate to different census tracts within Onondaga County. When this index is compared to the racial makeup of the tracts, a stark picture emerges: 79 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Hispanics live in census tracts with low or very low housing opportunity compared to just 22 percent of whites. On the flip side, 56 percent of whites live in areas with high or very high opportunity compared to 12 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Hispanics. Furthermore, 31.3 percent of low-income blacks experience housing problems compared to 21.9 percent of all low-income people across the county.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Disparities in opportunity: blacks fare worst

Race, ethnicity and geography are leading indicators of the imbalance of opportunity in Syracuse. Race and ethnicity play a significant role when looking at the differences in average household income and poverty levels for residents of Syracuse, neighboring towns and the city of Syracuse. Moreover, racial and ethnic minorities have lower rates of homeownership but also bear the weight of higher housing costs.

The CNY Fair Housing report created three indices to measure economic opportunity, educational outcomes and housing and neighborhood opportunity. The report found that racial and ethnic minorities overwhelmingly lived in census areas with low or very low opportunity. The most disadvantaged group was blacks in Onondaga County, who are two times more likely to live in areas of low economic opportunity, four times more likely to live in an area with low educational outcomes and three times more likely to live in an area with low housing and neighborhood opportunity.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Now, the retired judge who had such a hard time finding a home has a public housing complex, McKinney Manor, named after him to recognize years of advocating for tenant rights as a lawyer. Yet over that half-century, the city’s citizens remain very much in separate worlds, a function of history and economics more-so than the blatant discrimination McKinney faced.

The Syracuse Metropolitan Statistical Area landed among The Top 10 Most Segregated in a 2010 study of Census data by the Brookings Institute. The 2014 CNY Fair Housing report concludes that for Syracuse to achieve an even distribution of white and black populations, 71% of either population would have to move. For the Hispanic population, the number’s 50%.

The Syracuse area also ranks as one of the worst cities for equality of opportunity based on race or ethnicity. It was only one of five cities that finished in the bottom 10 of both lists, according to CNY Fair Housing.

While the discrimination that McKinney faced no doubt still persists in some measure in Syracuse, there are other reasons why our city’s so segregated and positioned among the nation’s worst, said John Yinger, a professor of economics at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University.

“It’s a combination of our history and the continuing relative poverty of the black and Hispanic population,” Yinger said. “And to some degree ongoing discrimination, although that’s not the main cause anymore.”

Yinger cited economic decline and wealth disparity between the white and minority populations as the largest contributing factors to segregation.

In Syracuse and other cities, a substantial black or Hispanic middle class never emerged.

Among the white population, it did. They tended to move out of the central city for better futures, while poorer citizens remained behind in clusters.

It was not pretty. Syracuse lost much of its manufacturing base to support them — including jobs at Carrier, which had drawn and supported McKinney and others. With economic opportunity deteriorating for those left behind, neighborhoods declined, especially the minority ones.

Black and Hispanic populations are still confined to the same poor neighborhoods today as yesterday, said Karen Schroeder, assistant director of CNY Fair Housing, the nonprofit that advocates for better housing opportunities in Central New York.

“Syracuse is somewhat stagnant. You have people that have been living in the same neighborhood forever, and they get more and more ‘stuck,’ so to speak,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder added that because of the loss of economic opportunity and the great population decline suffered by Syracuse, people living in poor neighborhoods have no prospects to “move up and out.”

The result: Syracuse has concentrated areas of poverty and the people with the highest needs are living in the neighborhoods with the lowest opportunity, Schroeder said.

Bridging the gap of economic inequality, and providing mobility to poorer communities, has proven to be a confounding puzzle in Syracuse.

“We have an area economy here that’s not booming and new opportunities are not

arriving very fast, so the distribution of families by income does not change very much,” Yinger said.

We shouldn’t demonize the poor and blame them for their own problems, Schroeder said. Her nonprofit advocates another view: Those living in neighborhoods of low opportunity should have the chance to send their children to better schools or have
affordable housing built in better neighborhoods.

Schroeder said reversing stigma has been a challenge for CNY Fair Housing. Landlords here can legally refuse to consider Section 8 or public assistance money as income. Unable to declare that money on applications, potential renters find better housing out of reach, even though they may have the funds to afford it.

Segregation is simply a deep-rooted feature of the American city, Yinger said.

“There’s no intrinsic difference between a back family and a white family. It’s the history that they carry,” Yinger said. “That history means that black families have not owned housing for as many generations and they haven’t accumulated wealth for as many generations.”

Langston McKinney: Well it doesn’t mean as much to me as perhaps it does to everybody, or anyone else. Only because my experience of Syracuse is up-close and personal having experienced segregation and understanding from having lived here for about 45 years or so that there are places where black people don’t live and can’t live and won’t live.

And that’s just the way it is. It’s like black people sitting in the back of the buses when I was growing up as a kid in Florida. That’s the culture.

At the leadership level in Syracuse, very few persons have ever realized how detrimental it is to the well-being of the community to have it splintered by these artificial barriers that separate people because of race. So again, if someone says ‘Syracuse is one of the most segregated cities,’ that would not necessarily bother me.

Except it’s not really just segregation that’s bad, it’s all the negative aspects of segregation. Again, I grew up in the segregated South. Within our community we had thriving communities, where we as kids were able to see black people achieve certain things and to do certain things that they haven’t been able to do here because of segregation.

And what’s here is not the same as what was there.

We had storeowners, we had doctors, we had lawyers, we had ministers and we had strong middle-class communities that were self-sufficient and thriving. Those are few and far beyond here.

There is now a larger black middle class here, but still I think the average black person of modest means would find difficulty living in a number of places in Syracuse and acquiring suitable housing.

That’s it, and the powers that be don’t see that as something to be ashamed of.

Stephen ConnorsSyracuse’s history of housing segregation, economic inequality leaves poor communities stuck
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