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Roof Over Your Head

It takes a dynamic mix of government policy and nonprofit gusto make sure that adequate housing is available to all.

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The Prospect Hill Homes project involved the City of Syracuse, Housing Visions, Home HeadQuarters, and St. Joseph’s Hospital in revitalizing the neighborhood adjacent to the hospital. (photo: Chuck Wainwright)

 

Like many other cities of the Northeast and Midwest, Syracuse hollowed out from the 1960s through the ’90s as factories closed or relocated and substantial numbers of city dwellers moved away or out to the suburbs. The impact of that loss of people and investment is clearly visible today in the city’s housing stock — with an estimated 1,700 to 1,800 vacant structures, low property values, and very low homeownership rates in some of its poorest neighborhoods. Yet in the face of these daunting challenges, Syracuse is demonstrating how housing in even hard-hit neighborhoods can improve thanks to creative partnerships among housing agencies, community groups, and private institutions.

In Syracuse, two key organizations focused on low- and moderate-income housing are Home HeadQuarters, which assists first-time home buyers and provides home-improvement loans; and Housing Visions, which began as a community initiative to revitalize Syracuse’s East Genesee neighborhood and now redevelops and builds properties in several upstate cities. Justin Rudgick ’05 MPA, senior development project manager for Housing Visions, says these and other Syracuse-based organizations increasingly collaborate as part of city government’s “progressive stance” with housing. “Through a competitive application process,” says Rudgick, “the city requests that all projects demonstrate the potential for having the greatest impact with the limited resources available — and leveraging additional funding is the key.”

One example is the recently completed Prospect Hill Homes, adjacent to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where the city, Housing Visions, Home HeadQuarters, and the hospital worked together to develop 50 new units of affordable housing in a neighborhood where (according to the city’s most recent housing report) just over 6 percent of houses are owner occupied and 22 percent are vacant. In the first phase of this project, Home HeadQuarters acquired blighted properties adjacent to the hospital’s main entrance, and Housing Visions built (and now manages) the new rentals. Home HeadQuarters also has been acquiring and rehabbing nearby houses with the intent of selling them to owner-occupants, and the hospital is offering a guaranteed mortgage program to encourage employees to settle in the neighborhood.

“Focused, targeted investment has more impact than if you spread that same amount of money over a large geographic area.”

This kind of coordinated approach reflects lessons learned over the last decade by Syracuse’s housing agencies. Alys Mann ’06 BA (Geog/PSt), who worked as a neighborhood planner for Home HeadQuarters before being appointed this year as the city’s housing director, describes a strategy of concentrating on a particular block for several years — rehabbing all the houses that need it, demolishing derelict buildings that can’t be saved, and providing loans or mini-grants for repairs so that people can stay in their homes. Mann says, “We’ve learned that kind of focused, targeted investment has more impact than if you spread that same amount of money over a large geographic area.”

Similar housing strategies are at work today on the Near Westside, statistically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, where SU has become a major partner in a multifaceted housing/business/community development initiative. As Home HeadQuarters and other organizations work to improve neighborhood housing and raise homeownership rates, SU’s Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems has made the Near Westside a laboratory for new green-building technology.

“I think Syracuse has an incredibly creative community development strategy,” says Stephanie Pasquale ’97 BA (PSt)/’97 MPA  deputy executive director for Home HeadQuarters, who recently returned to Syracuse from her hometown in Massachusetts in order to get involved in the kinds of projects happening on Prospect Hill and the Near Westside. “There are partnerships everywhere, but here everyone’s committed, and people have put their money where their mouth is. There are neighborhoods that are really turning around that maybe folks thought wouldn’t be possible. It’s just wonderful to be part of that.”

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. 
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.