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Grant Funds Syracuse Housing Research

December 17, 2021

Gretchen Purser

Gretchen Purser

Gretchen Purser, associate professor of sociology at the Maxwell School, is part of a three-member team that has received a $350,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to investigate how building local power among tenants can enhance community health and well-being.  

The grant is provided by the foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL) program, a highly competitive national leadership program that promotes action-oriented and community-engaged research. The funding will cover an annual stipend for each team member as well as a one-time research award of $125,000 and mentorship from national experts in research, community action, health equity, public policy and advocacy.

In addition to Purser, the research team includes Jamila Michener, associate professor of government at Cornell University, and Palmer Harvey, founder of and organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Union.

Their project, titled “Building Power for Community Health: A Study of Tenant Organizing in Syracuse, N.Y.,” will investigate how building power through the tenants union helps to achieve concrete improvements in housing conditions for poor and predominantly Black families in the Syracuse community. 

“We define power as the ability to influence the processes and institutions that shape the circumstances of one's life and environment,” explains Purser. “We ask how power can be developed and wielded to improve health in marginalized communities.”

They will also examine how building power among tenants can help mitigate processes and mechanisms through which policies, practices and programs uphold structural racism in housing. And, they will explore how local political participation in the tenant's union leads to improvements in mental health through diminished feelings of isolation and resignation and an increased sense of collective efficacy as political agents.

Housing is the focus of the research because, Purser says, it is an “enduring channel through which structural racism has shaped outcomes in Syracuse.” Confronted with an imbalance of power, tenants experience substandard housing, lead poisoning, predatory renting arrangements, evictions and more, she adds.

Purser also serves as research director on activism and advocacy for the Maxwell School’s Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). Her research and teaching focuses on work and labor market transformation, the housing struggles of the urban poor and the policies and practices of poverty management in the U.S. She received a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California at Berkeley. 

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