Kennedy Square: Part II
by Chrissie Rizzo
|Community activist Charles Pierce El of the National Action Network at the demonstration marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, March 19, 2008. While local residents struggle to receive adequate section 8 funds for housing, war funding continues to skyrocket. Photo: Mike Greenlar.|
Last month, the PNL provided an introduction to the story of the closing of Kennedy Square Apartments. The 80 families in residence were given notice in late October 2007 that they had 90 days to move out. Here is the rest of their story .
If you lived on a very tight budget, were told you had to move your family out of its home during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season and that you could have only a couple hundred dollars to get started (out of the thousand dollars in moving funds you were promised) how would you feel?
The residents of Kennedy Square were angry. They were stressed figuring out where to move, how to cover moving expenses, and how to give their children a decent Christmas. They were frustrated because they were given conflicting information from the agencies that were controlling the complex's closure. They suffered verbal abuse from people on the staff of those agencies and at other times they couldn't find those same staff members during their posted hours of duty. They were humiliated when potential landlords discriminated against them as they looked for new homes. They felt as if no one cared.
Two residents of Kennedy Square were graduates of American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) Women's Leadership Development Workshop. They called us for help when it seemed like they couldn't get straight answers from the people who were supposed to help them. It started simply-nobody had given the residents a listing of available apartments, and our office happened to receive a copy of the monthly list compiled by the Rescue Mission. Then AFSC staff worked with the Syracuse chapter of the National Action Network, and P.E.A.C.E. Inc.'s Project Connection, located in Kennedy Square, to try to assess the residents' needs. Together, we held a "resource fair" for residents in December, so that they could talk with potential moving companies, new landlords, and personnel from the Department of Social Services (DSS), HUD, and Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA). We also began working closely with dozens of families who needed assistance with managing the moving process.
By working with the SHA, the moveout deadline was extended for families who faced additional hardships and were having trouble finding a new home. Some residents were ill-prepared for moving. Some tenants were elderly or handicapped, and unable to do things like pack up their belongings, or understand how best to protect their things while moving. Others had language, literacy, or transportation barriers that kept them from being able to move out on their own. Most residents qualified for Section 8 housing vouchers, but many had difficulty filling out the paperwork.
As the complex began to empty out, security became a problem. A dwindling number of people were scattered across a large property with no police or security presence. One night, vandals set fire to a mostly-abandoned part of the property. There was one family living in that section, and their phone lines had been cut and their door kicked in on several occasions. The incident helped to convince SHA, the Syracuse Police Department, and Wynn Management to do more to keep the remaining residents safe until they moved out. The property began to be boarded up, and fences were raised to keep trespassers out.
After tenants found new apartments, they faced new problems. Landlords wanted first month's rent and security deposits before the families could move in but they could not get access to 80% of their moving allowances until AFTER they had turned in the keys to their Kennedy Square apartments. SHA offered to fax letters to the landlords, assuring them that the Kennedy Square residents would have money to pay their security deposits after they moved out. Some landlords did not accept those letters, and the residents had to start their search over from scratch. As of mid-March, almost all of the residents of Kennedy Square have moved out.
A sobering realization: Syracuse has a significant gap in services for people facing forced eviction through no fault of their own. There is no coordination among agencies that deal with housing issues in Syracuse. SHA is aware that several other properties in Syracuse will soon go the way of Kennedy Square. There is currently no comprehensive plan in place to assist the residents of those properties.
This problem is happening throughout the country. Federally funded housing programs like Section 8 have been gutted over the past eight years. It is clear that more work must be done to change the funding, public policies, and laws that put families in this precarious housing situation. A number of important housing reform bills are currently pending in the House and Senate-bills that would expand the definition of "homelessness" to cover more people, create an affordable housing trust fund, and improve the Section 8 program. If you would like to receive "action alerts" for days to call our elected officials about housing issues, please contact Chrissie Rizzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.