By Louise Brown Smith
Affordable housing has entered our local consciousness. Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed a state plan to add 80,000 new affordable housing units in NYS. Construction of Cazenovia’s new affordable housing development, The Landing at Burke Meadow has already begun.
We need to be curious. What is affordable housing? What are the root causes of housing insecurity? Are there precipitating events that have recently increased homelessness? How will programs to increase affordable housing affect Cazenovia? Will previously homeless citizens move to Cazenovia? How will housing insecurity be affected in NYS?
Madison County and Syracuse both saw a substantial increase in the number of homeless people in 2022. In real numbers Madison County had 284 homeless people in 2022, up from 208 in 2021. In Onondaga, Cayuga, and Oswego counties, mostly in Syracuse, the number of homeless people has increased from 560 in 2022 to more than 800 in 2023.
This recent increase in homelessness was precipitated by the COVID pandemic. COVID relief provided families living in or near poverty levels with increased food allowances, a moratorium on rent evictions, and increased financial relief for children. At the same time, families of people living in poverty, especially Black families, experienced more COVID disease and deaths than the general population. Recently, financial assistance has decreased and the cost of renting has increased. Inflation has impacted the cost of food and household necessities. At the same time, Black families often lost income due to the death of one of their members. Many of these families and individuals have been pushed into homelessness. The majority of people who became homeless in the past year live in families.
There is a public perception that behavioral and mental health issues are major factors leading to homelessness. In reality, the vast majority of the 40 to 52 million people who struggle with mental illness in America do not experience homelessness. It’s possible of course that risk of homelessness is slightly increased for individuals experiencing mental illness or substance abuse, but substance use and mental health disorders are often consequences of housing instability, developing from the trauma of life on the streets.
Racism is a root cause of homelessness. There are significant racial disparities in homelessness, particularly for our Black and Indigenous citizens. Centuries of discrimination, from forcibly taking land from Native Americans, to long marches and reservations, or from slavery, to Jim Crow, to redlining and mass incarceration, have generated intergenerational racial inequality that has created the conditions for wealth inequity and housing insecurity today. Systemic racial discrimination exists to this day in inflated mortgage rates, scarcity of low interest loans, availability and distribution of affordable housing, distribution of inherited wealth, and long ex
isting segregation in housing. Syracuse is one of our country’s most segregated cities.
Presently in Cazenovia, there is one existing affordable housing development, Cazenovia Village Apartments. These apartments are available to people over 62 years of age, or to people who are disabled at any age. Rent for this property is based on 30 percent of a person’s gross adjusted income. Families or other people who have low incomes are not eligible to rent these apartments.
Often in NYS, federal and/or state funding for affordable housing can be earmarked for elderly, disabled, or low-income housing. Local leaders have been able to control what their communities looked like. Often, a particular town or municipality chooses to provide housing for senior citizens, enabling them to keep racial segregation and poverty concentrated in cities. The governor’s housing proposal would give the state power to bypass local zoning laws and limit the power of local leaders.
The Landing at Burke Meadows, now being constructed in the village of Cazenovia, will have 33 homes for adults aged 55 and older, and four townhome buildings with 16 apartments. Ten of the townhomes will be set aside for individuals and families in need of supportive services. These families may be newly homeless or facing homelessness. The supports needed could be food and/or health care. Some of the units will have a subsidy attached to them, so tenants will pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent.
It is important for us to be curious as our community grows and changes due to its expanding housing opportunities. We can be proud that we support new neighbors who need affordable homes in Cazenovia. As Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City says, “the home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menacer of the streets. We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’ Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our mask.”