Inaccessible Gentrification Buildings Cannot Become the Rule in Syracuse

There is a problem in Syracuse, as there is in many cities, with a lack of affordable, accessible housing. Yet so many new fancy apartment buildings are being built. In Syracuse, options for housing for those who are renting are often older houses that are not accessible, or exorbitantly priced gentrification buildings, a few units of which may be accessible. I live in the Syracuse University area, and I have for about 6 years. I moved to this area because it is on the bus line and also walk-able, and there is a sense of community here. I work at the University, and like many disabled people, I do not drive. One of the reasons there are so many buses and shuttles in my area is because of the University. In other areas of the city, bus lines have been cut. In this area, Syracuse University provides an incentive for more buses, and it is therefor an area where disabled people want to live, as transportation is a big issue for us. City buses run frequently during the week and are accessible, and the University also has a fleet of shuttles, which are less accessible, but they are working on it. There is also an accessible “shuttle you home” van that brings students who live within a certain area home late into the night. My disabled friends and I have utilized this free service many times, when we were all students.

Syracuse University has accessible housing for students. My question is, what happens when disabled students graduate, get jobs and want to live in the community? What happens to disabled professors and staff members who come here for jobs? Syracuse University has the first Disability Studies program in the world, Burton Blatt Institute, the School of Education, the Disability Cultural Center, and the Office of Disability Services. As a result, the University gets many disabled students, faculty and staff. Students graduate, and many have found community here, especially in the neighborhood around the University. Sometimes, they would like to stay here, either at the University or in the city, and work and settle in. I hear it over and over again from graduating students: I cannot live in the city of Syracuse. It is not accessible. So that means they can’t stay here. And I have witnessed many people move to a more accessible city with better housing, or back home with their families because they have no other option.

For those who are from this area, we have heard many times that there is a “brain drain” in Central New York. Smart young people move away. People do not stay here after college. People leave. Well what is this city providing as an incentive to get people to stay? One of the biggest things is housing. Disabled people in Syracuse in general need housing, but I am also thinking about how we have a world-class Disability Studies program here, and its affiliated offices and institutes, how that brings people to Syracuse, but then they have nowhere to live. The city and the community need to do their part to advocate for better housing, to demand that accessible, affordable housing be built.

Recently, I read in the Syracuse Post-Standard that two entrepreneurs were proposing a mixed-use apartment building for Westcott Street, a street in the University area with many restaurants, bars, a popular coffee house, and other businesses. Westcott Street is part of what people call “the Westcott Nation”, and has a unique, local feel. It is not corporate, it is arty and community-driven, and many people walk/roll to the area from the surrounding neighborhood to eat and hang out. Several popular spots on the street are accessible, even the local dive bar. Now I am not entirely certain what the idea is for the building, known as Westcott Remix, but I did not read anything about accessible units being built, nor did I read anything about the restaurants and retail space in the building being accessible, although of course there are codes that require spaces to be ADA compliant. This could be because the newspaper here did not think to report any of that. A friend of mine attended the community forum on the building and said that the developers want this building to be affordable and include universal design. I think that this is a start, and I hope that this is truly the plan. It is my experience that disabled people are not contacted in regards designing access, and it is not done correctly.

The ADA is a complaint-driven act. So after the fact, if things are not accessible, it is a long and difficult legal process to try and get people to fix it. It is important to go into the plan in the first place with disability in mind, and it is important to realize that disabled people live in the community, and it would be great to acknowledge that we exist with every new building that is built, or any project that affects our lives.

westcott remix

Westcott Remix [image description: artist’s conception of a two or three-story brick mixed-use building with balconies outside each unit and stores at street level with purple and blue awnings, located next to Alto Cinco.]

The other issue is affordability. The two young men behind Westcott Remix said that it would not be as expensive as downtown apartment buildings, which can be 2 grand a month or more. The developers are looking to market to “graduate students and young professionals.” Rent may not be 2 grand, but what will it be? We need to be realistic about what “graduate students and young professionals” can really afford in this area. This building may be affordable, and that is a start. It is still in the planning stages and it remains to be seen what will happen.

Some think that housing is purely a money-making endeavor, and should be looked at as a financial investment and nothing more. Many developers of new, luxury apartments in U.S. cities want to market to young professionals. All of the exorbitantly priced gentrification buildings in San Francisco, for example, are there for “young professionals” who work in the tech industry. Seattle is in the middle of a housing crisis, which many say has been brought on by a proliferation of luxury apartments with strict rules for tenants, that are not affordable. As a result, both of these cities are experiencing a surge in homelessness.

Syracuse, like many cities in the U.S., is experiencing an influx of high-priced private apartment housing all over the city, and of course the ideal is to rent to young professionals who have money. Some of the luxury housing is geared towards students, in particular undergrads whose parents will pay the rent, and they are typically built in poor neighborhoods that are communities of color. People who are from the neighborhood are not the ones living in these homes. These types of buildings have caused problems in cities like Portland, Oregon; New York City, San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington, and studies say they are driving homelessness. People cannot afford the high rents. Buildings that previously were affordable are evicting tenants in order to sell up and join the movement of gentrification. Syracuse has long been a struggling, impoverished city. And now we are seeing more and more of these expensive, exclusive apartments being built. The same thing is happening in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, too. Whether you are a part of the University, or you are a city resident, this is a problem.

Another issue is that mainstream society thinks that there are two types of disabled people: a super-wealthy individual like Brian Cranston’s character in “The Upside”, or the guy in “Me Before You”, or they think that all disabled people are living in section 8, on disability and do not work, and that the government is dealing with it. This is untrue and section 8 is not the answer to accessible housing, anyway. The issue is that disabled people are thought of as a separate class that somehow do not need to participate in society or be included in mainstream initiatives. There are graduate students, there are young professionals, there are people of all ages, there are professors, there are many, many types of disabled people in this world and in the Syracuse community.

Westcott Remix may not be built. And if it is built, it may have accessible units. I do not know, and it is not my intention to completely single this building out, because this is a larger issue with many components. However it is important that, moving forward, citizens begin to demand that developers include disability in their designs for buildings. Because all too often, they don’t. We need to find the middle ground between high end luxury apartments and apartments built for those on Social Security Disability or who are part of social programs. Because there are many people in between who need housing, too. Disabled people are part of every community.

Community members can make demands of the developers of these buildings and express our concerns to the city. The answer to housing in Syracuse is not more gentrification which favors able-bodied people of a certain demographic. Is our ideal for Syracuse to be a place where developers who wish to profit off of young people and not provide real, needed solutions for the city proliferate? Or is our ideal a city where the community can afford to live and have access, an ideal of inclusion? Whatever is being built here needs to be accessible. There needs to be wheelchair accessible units with accessible bathrooms that actually are accessible, not just someone’s idea of what that may be, which they did without consulting a disabled person. We need to have community inclusion and real affordability, and I do not mean by “affordable” that you need to have two room mates to pay rent when you are a grown adult. Disabled people need to be included in the conversation and that means any forums about new buildings need to have sign language interpreters and wheelchair and other access. Syracuse cannot follow the model of larger cities who have increasingly allowed overpriced housing to be built, and provided little to no other options. We need to provide housing for our disability community here, and Syracuse needs to do its part to be an inclusive city.