Teenagers smoke marijuana and set off fireworks at the abandoned houses on Latora Jefferson’s block in the South Side. Shattered glass and boarded-up windows of the rotting properties surround her newly built home in every direction. Cats infest her neighbor’s vacant house and make the street smell like urine.
“This is the city’s responsibility,” said Jefferson, 30. “And teens are going to continue to get hurt and continue to have a place to run away from if they do not do something about these abandoned houses.”
But the city is finding it much harder to cure the blight of abandoned homes. This year, state and federal budget cuts have shrunk the city’s resources to renovate abandoned properties like the ones next door to Jefferson. And the cuts have forced city officials to search for new ways to stop the local abandoned housing epidemic.
“We’ll never get to the scale that we need to be at to address this problem,” said Paul Driscoll, commissioner of the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. “So it’s really salt in the wounds to just further cut.”
The city receives money to deal with abandoned housing from several sources, among them:
- The city received slightly more than $4.7 million this year in Community Development Block Grant funding. Last year, it received nearly $5.59 million. That’s a cut of $881,000. The federal program helps cities revitalize neighborhoods.
- The city received slightly more than $1.15 million this year in HOME Investment Partnerships Program funding. Last year, it received nearly $1.92 million. That’s a cut of $755,732. The federal program helps cities rehabilitate and build affordable housing with the aid of nonprofit groups.
The city also faces potentially less help from individuals and groups, if the state cuts housing money. In his 2012-13 budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed giving $291.71 million to the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal to help groups and individuals deal with housing needs. In last year’s budget, the division received slightly more than $314 million. That’s a cut of $22.35 million. The division oversees the maintenance of low-income housing and helps fund individual projects in the city to renovate abandoned housing.
The city of Syracuse has 1,919 vacant structures, said Driscoll, commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. Homes account for 89 percent of those structures, Driscoll said. The city can only afford to renovate about 20 of those homes a year. The others rot or fall to the ground. Some become havens for prostitutes and arsonists.
The solution isn’t easy — or cheap.
Demolishing the homes is one option. The city has a demolition budget of $1 million. That can only get rid of about 50 homes, Driscoll said.
Repairing the homes is another option. The city seizes properties where owners don’t pay taxes. Then it tries to resell the homes at discounted prices to groups that will rehabilitate them, Driscoll said. To get the discount, the groups must agree, for example, to rehabilitate the house by a deadline or sell it to a permanent homeowner who will take care of the property.
“That seems to be the most creative way of addressing this epidemic without relying on state or federal funds,” Driscoll said.
City officials are also working on creating a registry of vacant properties. It would allow the city to keep track of owners of abandoned properties and put pressure on landlords to maintain them.
The city rarely holds landlords accountable for leaving abandoned properties in destitute conditions, neighborhood preservationists argue.
Yet the city still relies on those landlords to keep up the properties, said Phil Prehn, community organizer for Syracuse United Neighbors. His organization works to improve living conditions in the South Side. The city, he said, just tacks up cheap boards when they fall off the windows of abandoned homes.
“Their handling of the situation is derelict,” he said. “Just even on the basics, it’s just not effective in any way.”
Some city officials agree.
“We do, in my opinion, just about everything wrong that we could possibly do about housing,” said Jean Kessner, a Democrat and Syracuse Common Councilor At-Large. She is the chairperson of the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Committee. One mistake, Kessner argued, is building new housing that is lower quality than renovated abandoned houses.
Instead, the city should fix up neighborhoods where one or two abandoned homes have brought down the block, Kessner said. “It starts with one house,” she said. “The whole block is fine and then one guy is foreclosed on, and so it’s sitting there. And then someone knocks out the windows.”
From there, the building quickly wears away. Property values tumble as people dump tires and construction debris onto lawns, residents say. Porches dangle off the most dangerous homes, ready to collapse at any moment. Some houses remain this way for years.
And they continue to be a nuisance for residents like new homeowner Latora Jefferson of the South Side. She wants the city to tear down the vacant properties surrounding her home.
“Leave it an empty space,” Jefferson said. “It’s better than giving animals and kids the places to do drugs and infest the property even more than what it is.”
(Michael Boren is a senior in newspaper and online journalism.)