Liberal Column

Smith: Syracuse can beat poverty with data — if it remembers the people behind the numbers

Casey Russell | Head Illustrator

The recession and housing crisis of 2008 struck Syracuse hard, leaving behind concentrated pockets of deep poverty that have yet to be restored.

If you’re taking a walk, steering clear of Interstate 81 is something of an unspoken rule among the Syracuse University community.

West of I-81, once-beautiful Victorians plastered with plywood boards line the streets, neglected by long-lost landlords. And in the shadow of the towering highway overhead, Syracuse Housing Authority’s Pioneer Homes complex and the surrounding streets offer a clear glimpse of the concentrated poverty that continues to swallow the city.

But a program launched by New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may give these communities a second chance for prosperity.

Schneiderman announced the Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement program, or Cities RISE, in April. This program grants cities data systems that can be used to identify “problem properties,” or high-poverty areas that need government intervention. And in June, Syracuse was announced as one of 18 initial cities to receive a Cities RISE grant.

The data system software, which is being designed by tech firm Tolemi, will allow local governments to “integrate, map, and analyze disparate sources of property data information regarding code enforcement violations,” according to a press release from Schneiderman’s office.

The software aims to enable prospective property investors to make more informed decisions by identifying “problem properties” and pocketed areas stricken with economic hardships in the wake of the devastating 2008 housing crisis. Remember that?

Yes, the 2008 meltdown is relevant again, but for all the right reasons. Funding for Cities RISE comes from settlements Schneiderman obtained from big banks responsible for the collapse, according to another release from the attorney general’s office. Schneiderman is finally digging up reparations for the damage caused to American communities and ensuring the data system software isn’t a giant taxpayer burden.

It should come as no surprise that Syracuse was chosen to receive the grant. The bipartisan think tank Century Foundation found in a 2015 report that Syracuse had the highest level of concentrated poverty in the entire nation among blacks and Hispanics. This shows how the housing crisis and similar economic hardship created concentrated pockets of poverty that are nearly impossible to escape.

A graphic shows that areas of concentrated poverty have increased dramatically in Syracuse.

Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

After reading something like this, it is tempting to think “that’s awful,” and then move on. Thankfully, Schneiderman didn’t forget about those hurt in the housing crisis and crafted Cities RISE to help them make a comeback.

The software will make it possible to analyze Syracuse’s demographics in unprecedented detail. But there’s a chance these shocking statistics about poverty obtained from Cities RISE could be lost on community leaders who see it.

Simply giving the public access to more information doesn’t guarantee community restoration, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C. and an adviser to the Cities RISE program.

“The software can be a useful tool,” Mallach said, “but ultimately it’s up to the community, political and civic leadership to focus on how better to integrate the community.”

Government and community leaders can’t let the information they gain from Cities RISE slide. They must craft a revitalization effort that isn’t motivated by pocketing people into financially-similar neighborhoods, but rather by a true desire to help members of the community.

To simply ignore impoverished communities in revitalizing a city is comparatively easy, but these relief funds must prioritize the most economically vulnerable. We cannot get lost in the traps of gentrification. Instead, we should improve home infrastructure and maintenance while taking economic realities of tenants into account.

Yes, incorporating people of different socioeconomic classes can be difficult work. It’s often politically unviable. But too many Syracuse residents have found that living in a society stricken with poverty is far worse.

Kyle Smith is a third-year environmental studies major. His column appears biweekly. You can reach him at kasmi102@syr.edu.

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