Category: Uncategorized

Innovation in Action: Data Dating

City highways and lights.

The world of dating has been forever-changed by the Internet. Applications such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge have allowed for individuals separated by time and space to connect based upon shared interests, without ever needing to meet one another face to face. For better or for worse, this has led to an unprecedented level of digital connectivity unlike the world has seen before.

But what if this new technology could be used for a different purpose—for the betterment of communities, outside of pixilated messages and swipes? For Dr. Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Central New York Community Foundation, the idea wasn’t so farfetched.

Ridzi is a lover of data. He thrives on the excitement of recognizing trends between nonprofit groups in the Central New York community, and using data to allocate aid accordingly. Utilizing the Life Needs Assessment, a survey offered to various non-profits in the area, Ridzi pioneered the concept of “Data Dating.”

The Life Needs Assessment is quite simple; surveyed respondents answer succinct, straightforward questions such as “Do you have dependable and safe transportation when you need it,” and “Do you have long-term housing that you can afford.” Respondents are also asked to provide basic, demographic information on age, race, and neighborhood, among others, to analyze which communities are in need of certain resources.

The most crucial aspect of the survey is that it is completely confidential. Anyone who is served by a nonprofit organization has the opportunity to take the survey. Privacy is integral to data gathering, and the assessment never shares names in the process to protect respondents.

Similar in the way dating apps match users with one another based upon common interests, data dating uses survey responses to pair different nonprofits with one another based upon their clients’ needs and strengths. In all aspects of their operations, where one organization flourishes, another may struggle. Data Dating allows for different organizations to connect based upon mutually beneficial partnerships, and ultimately leads to better services for the communities the nonprofits represent.

PEACE, Inc. used Data Dating resources to partner with organizations that have similar missions to further enhance its work. Todd Goehle, community engagement director at PEACE, Inc., cited the importance of holistic data collection and collaboration with other organizations.

“The data that we’re accumulating doesn’t necessarily reflect the community at large,” he said. “This tool gives us opportunities, especially with live mapping, to identify locations where interventions can be made.”

The survey allows organizations to combine both qualitative and quantitative data to paint a better picture of the needs in communities. For example, during the onset of COVID-19, there was a common narrative that the most need-based resource was food. However, it became clear through surveyed respondents that there was a greater need for things like jobs, assistance paying bills, computers and internet connectivity. This data made it easier for organizations to identify the areas that needed attention and quickly shift resources to address them.

Pairing nonprofits together in order to more efficiently and effectively achieve their goals is the first step in creating a better quality of life for Central New York residents. Not only does the method of Data Dating facilitate a culture of partnership, but it ensures resources are allocated in an equitable and impactful way

 

Share

Building Sustainability for the Arts Community

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts and culture sector was among the hardest-hit. As residents remained shuttered in their homes, movie theaters, actors, arts organizations and independent artists struggled to sustain themselves — unable to share their talents. With support from the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund, emergency assistance provided them with a critical lifeline when they needed it most.

While the arts is commonly thought of as a “niche,” and small industry, the Arts & Culture Impact study in 2019 found that “greater Syracuse’s arts and culture industry generates more than $148 million in economic activity, supports nearly 6,000 full time jobs, generates $125 million in household income and delivers over $21 million in local and state government revenue,” while providing cultural and artistic talents that bring life to the Central New York community.

The arts and cultural sector is composed of myriad industries such as film, advertising, and digital and visual arts, as well as specific individual occupations like performers, musicians, architects, graphic designers, and curators. In addition to its direct contributions to the economy, the arts and culture sector supports and is supported by other professions, such as nonprofit administrators, promoters, accounting, and finance, further magnifying its economic footprint.

“At CNY Arts, we believe that a healthy arts industry is essential to the quality of life and community in Central New York,” said Steve Butler, executive director of CNY Arts. “The industry has been hit much harder than expected by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.”

Despite its importance, the arts in Onondaga County experienced a sharp decline in employment even before the pandemic. In 2018, total arts employment numbers in Syracuse dropped from 3,624 to 1,823. The decline not only hurt the sector, but exacerbated Central New York’s gender employment gap in the arts, with only 716 women in the industry in 2018. Since 2009, women have not come close to reaching equal employment numbers compared to their male counterparts – the closest they came was in 2012, when the gap was composed of only 44 people. However, 2019 data implies that women’s arts employment has begun to rise, with 745 women.

As the pandemic continued to disrupt all aspects of our lives, it became apparent that the arts was an area that needed immediate attention. Without patrons visiting museums, productions, shows and exhibits, independent and organized artists struggled to make ends meet. For live arts performers, the closing of venues presented an acute barrier to employment. According to CNY Arts, it is estimated that independent artists lost over $12,000, while organizations lost over $200,000.

CNY Arts realized the need to support local arts, and the community foundation partnered with them to carry out that vision. In August of last year, they had the opportunity to build a campaign fund with CNY Arts designed to support arts organizations in Central New York impacted by the pandemic: the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund. Specifically, this fund supports artists and nonprofit arts organizations in three categories: restart, reopening, and resiliency.

All contributions made to the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund were matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $175,000, by the Community Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation and the John Ben Snow Foundation. As of Labor Day, CNY Arts reached its $1 million goal for this fund.

“Donations to the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund helped provide resiliency grants to artists and arts, culture, and heritage organizations in the seven county CNY Arts region,” said Butler. “Funding has been critical to these arts and cultural providers as they work to restart, reopen, and serve our communities as we heal and rebuild.”

Grants were allocated to the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation, the Erie Canal Museum, the Everson Museum of Arts of Syracuse and Onondaga County, Musical Associates of Central New York, Inc., Red House Arts Center, the SU Theater Corporation, among other talented, independent artists and organizations. Due to the slow process of reopening, CNY Arts will keep issuing grants through 2022.

“CNY Arts is committed to ensuring that our arts, culture, and heritage sector will survive and thrive and the Central New York Community Foundation is proud to be a resource to them in this work,” said Peter Dunn, President and CEO of the Central New York Community Foundation.

 

Share

Lead Poisoning in CNY: Event Recap

On January 26th, 2022, the Central New York Community Foundation hosted a community discussion concerning the rate of childhood lead poisoning in the region. Chris Bolt, public affairs director at WAER, moderated the discussion and has been covering issues around Syracuse lead poisoning since the 1990s. Panelists included community leaders, health professionals and activists, who engaged in constructive dialogue to find solutions to an issue that has affected the lives of hundreds over the past 30 years.

Lead poisoning is an issue long thought to have been eradicated in the 1970s when lead paint was officially banned in the United States. However, when topcoats of new paint slowly erode over time, it can reveal the original, toxic paint on the walls underneath. When inhaled, it can lead to severe, irreversible side effects in children. When poisoned, children can develop headaches, seizures, and permanent cognitive disabilities. Dr. Frank Ridzi, vice president of community investment at the Community Foundation, relayed that lead poisoning is affecting around 4% of the county’s children.

Syracuse in particular is home to an older housing stock – houses built long before the lead paint ban went into effect. Thus, residents and their children remain at a higher risk of lead exposure. Around 9% of Syracuse city children tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2020. Panelist Oceanna Fair, who works as the South Branch Leader for Families for Lead Freedom Now, cited the lack of education that results in childhood lead poisoning – if families are not aware of the risks, lead poisoning remains an almost incomprehensible possibility.

Dr. Indu Gupta, Onondaga County Health Commissioner, acknowledged the shortcomings in the effort to curb lead poisoning but explained that the overall case numbers were decreasing. She highlighted the need to match children with pediatricians, who are required by law to test children for lead poisoning. Ultimately she hopes to receive new funds from the state, in order to provide better overall testing for families in the city.

Bonfrida Kakwaya and Darlene Medley, two mothers who also work with Families for Lead Freedom Now, expressed their frustration and heartache. Both mothers have young children who have been poisoned by lead and are tired of seeing more children being poisoned every year. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Medley said.

Syracuse City Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and Commissioner Michael Collins assured attendees that they would continue to try and find solutions to the lead poisoning issue in the city. Peter Dunn, CEO of the Community Foundation, reiterated the Community Foundation’s commitment to invest $2 million over five years to making residences lead-safe, with a focus on the Syracuse census tracts that house children with the highest blood lead levels. “We want our young people to be able to arrive in the classroom able and ready to learn and on a path to reach their fullest potential,” he said.

Watch the full event video below:

Share

City of Syracuse Launches New Snow Plow Map

Central New York residents are hardy when it comes to snowstorms – we know how to deal with it safely without much interruption to our daily lives. But what can be a minor hassle for some of us can be a major hurdle for others. Low-income individuals often work in service industries that can’t be done from home. A missed day of work due to snowed-in roads and sidewalks could mean fewer wages earned that week or even worse yet – being out of job. The guest article below, written by Conor Muldoon, explains how the City of Syracuse is launching a new, innovative tracking system to ensure road clearing is monitored and efficient.

City of Syracuse Launches New Snow Plow Map
By Conor Muldoon, Deputy Chief Innovation and Data Officer City of Syracuse

Syracuse is one of the snowiest cities in the United States. We consistently receive more than ten feet of snow every winter, and have been the winner of the Golden Snowball Award, a friendly competition amongst Upstate New York cities, for 14 of the past 19 years. In 2018, the Office of Accountability, Performance, and Innovation developed an in-house web application to track the City’s fleet of snow plow trucks and map street segments that had been plowed during winter storms in order to communicate to residents when their street had been plowed. The tool was exceptionally well-received and played an important role in the City’s communication strategy around an important public service delivery.

However, last year the system experienced significant challenges with the underlying sensor technology and ran into limitations in the frequency of the network provider’s communications – resulting in performance issues that made the much-anticipated snow plow map no longer functional. Despite extensive attempts to work around the inherent technical limitations, it became apparent that it was time to develop a more robust solution.

In October 2021, the City of Syracuse partnered with Esri to develop a new tool utilizing Velocity Pro – a software as a service (SaaS) that acts as a real-time ingestion and analysis engine to process large volumes of spatial data and consume streaming Internet of Things (IoT) data from multiple sources.

This partnership, one of the first in the nation, will allow the City of Syracuse to solve three simultaneous challenges. First, it will produce a public-facing map to communicate to our residents when their street was last plowed. This map will automatically update every few minutes, sync with SyrCityLine – the City’s new platform for service requests, and share other important information such as overnight parking restrictions. Second, it will provide internal fleet management tracking, so our colleagues at the Department of Public Works can inventory and track their fleet of equipment, define service areas, and create new snow routes. Third, it will create internal dashboards to monitor and improve our city services. This will allow department leaders to develop city-wide performance metrics and monitor individual plow operations to track fuel and salt usage – thereby more effectively and efficiently serving our residents and reducing our operational costs.

Finally, by leveraging outside support and technical expertise, this partnership will also free up City resources to explore how to integrate this technology into other IoT pilot initiatives as part of the Syracuse Surge. We are incredibly proud of what started as a shining example of technical ingenuity and intentionally low-cost innovation to show what is possible is now evolving into a comprehensive approach to how the City of Syracuse improves its snow operations, delivers key services more efficiently, and improves the quality of life in our community. View the snow plow map.

Share

Hopeprint to Invest in Micro-Neighborhood

Jung Hoon Ryu moved to Syracuse from South Korea in 2005. During his mission work with the Boaz Project at his church, Korean Church of Syracuse, he encountered abandoned, broken and neglected housing on the Northside.

“I could see the broken hearts of the residents living in those conditions,” said Jung. “I realized then that God led me to Syracuse to help make change for them.”

Using his construction and architecture background, Jung established Building the Bridge USA to rebuild broken homes and communities and provide construction job opportunities for other New Americans. Through his involvement with Hopeprint, he was hired as the general contractor for one of its first lead-safe renovation projects.

On a warm August Day, Nicole Watts, CEO and founder of Hopeprint Inc., toured us around the Northside neighborhood. She loves the community of neighbors, the sound of the Assumption Church bells that play every hour and the kids playing in their yards. And she’s not the only one. The New Americans that settle in this neighborhood and find community through Hopeprint’s programs do, too.

“Folks come to us, and we build together,” Watts said. “We help them on their trajectory to thriving, and after a few years, many are ready to be homeowners, but they aren’t staying here.”

For more than a decade, Hopeprint has served the local resettled New American community through family empowerment programs, community navigation supports, and neighborhood development.

After a series of community dialogues, Hopeprint recently launched its micro-neighborhood reinvestment strategy, which seeks to address the area’s lack of quality, affordable housing. The strategy is multi-stepped with a focus on advocating for equitable transit options, right-sized housing, and business development. The chosen micro-neighborhood is a stretch of 30 blocks inside a boundary of four Northside streets (Park St., E. Division St., North Salina, and Kirkpatrick).

“We want to invest in these 30 blocks, so that residents can prosper in place,” Watts said. “So they don’t have to move away, and leave the community they’ve built here.”

Hopeprint approached Greater Syracuse Land Bank to purchase vacant homes and properties in the area, and hopes to start renovations on properties this fall. With support from the Community Foundation’s LeadSafeCNY initiative, Hopeprint will remodel the houses to be lead-safe.

According to the Onondaga County Health Department, more than 10 percent of Syracuse children tested in 2019 were shown to have elevated lead levels. On the Northside, such as in census tract 23, that number jumps to 16 percent – or one in every six kids. Our LeadSafeCNY initiative is committed to data-driven investments to eradicate childhood lead poisoning that disproportionately affects communities of color in the county.

“Our focus is on the people that call this place home,” Watts said. “This initiative is an investment in housing, but ultimately it’s an investment in people.”

As we walked the streets on the Northside, Watts pointed out the vacant houses and empty lots that she’s hoping to one day move families into. Some are full tear-downs, and others will take a lot of love and care, but it’s easy to see her vision as she talks.

She sees the problems – the broken windows, the faltering foundations – but just as easily sees the businesses that might one day root the corner of DeMong Park, or the new parents moving into their first home on North Alvord.

“We want to make sure that there are viable options for our families who want to stay on the Northside, and that there’s a quality home available to them,” Watts said.

As a Northside property owner and budding developer himself, Jung shares Hopeprint’s desire to see the Northside be a place where people can prosper in place.

“This is the first big step to reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and opening the door to the future for residents on the Northside,” he said.

Share

Feeding the Community During COVID-19

COVID-19, one of the largest pandemics in world history, disrupted the lives of millions. Government entities were forced to close down businesses and schools to keep residents safe, resulting in job and income loss. Organizations began to respond to a wave of people facing challenges to accessing food.

The network of nonprofits collaborating on the Life Needs Assessment project (more about this later), however, looked at their real-time data and saw something different than they expected; the data showed that food needs were actually largely being met. This seeming contradiction led our community to look further and to reach out to key players in this field to learn more.

“The presence of these data was a seeming contradiction with national news media hype,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Central New York Community Foundation. “Images of long lines at food pantries led to further investigation and discussion with food distribution professionals and even follow-ups with individuals who had completed the Life Needs Assessment.”

The Life Needs Assessment is a data source, managed by the Community Foundation, accessible to local funders and organizations committed to serving and helping the community. It functions as a centralized location for these groups to share up to the day information with each other about current needs of their clients and how those are changing.

One of the first places we looked was a long-term partner of the Community Foundation, the Food Bank of Central New York, which serves as a food provider to hundreds of thousands of families in our local community. Luckily, we learned, the federal government implemented legislation that supported farmers and food banks around the nation during the crisis. The result was that desperately needed food was making it into the homes of millions of families. “We have a fire hose of food and we are directing it wherever it needs to go,” said Brian McManus, chief operations officer at Food Bank of Central New York. This was a reassuring finding during an otherwise unnerving period of time.

The Food Bank partners with 370 different food pantries and agencies in Central and Northern New York. The pandemic disrupted typical operations such as sorting and transportation, forcing the organization to be creative on how to get food to those in need. They quickly adapted by implementing more mobile distributions in the communities they serve. Many volunteers and employees spent their evenings and weekends packing food in preparation for deliveries the next day.

“We had to change our model of distribution because it is typically very interactive,” said Karen Belcher, executive director of the Food Bank of CNY. “We found the need to partner with more community organizations in order to expand our accessibility and reach more families, individuals and seniors at this very uncertain time.

The pandemic brought many hardships and challenges for individuals and their families. The Nourish New York Initiative and emergency federal funding helped the Food Bank to obtain food to keep up with the accelerated demand. The Nourish New York Initiative provides funding to the Food Bank to directly purchase fresh produce from local farmers. This permanent initiative secures economic stability for farmers and consistent flow of food for food banks.

“Our pantries have been key partners during the pandemic,” said Belcher. “If the food pantries and soup kitchens hadn’t remained open, our work would have been much different than what we found ourselves in.”

Today, the Food Bank connects to 39 different farmers who grow and produce food. This leads to over 2.2 million pounds of produce and dairy products distributed to the community. To support the efforts to distribute and deliver food, the Central New York Community Foundation awarded them with more than $55,000 in funding from its COVID-19 Community Support Fund.

“The Community Foundation has been a huge resource,” said Belcher. “We share information to collaborate on tackling food insecurity in our communities.”

The Food Bank gives major appreciation and gratitude to the community for stepping up during this trying time for fellow residents.

“Donors and volunteers were major contributors to the effectiveness of packing and distributing food to families,” Belcher stated. “People came in with smiling faces ready to serve.”

The Life Needs Assessment that led CNYCF to re-connect with the Food Bank during this moment of crises is useful not only in identifying where immediate needs are emerging, but also in assuring us when key needs are being met. In this case, it helped us to come to appreciate one of the pandemic’s success stories, that much of the need was being met by the work of the Food Bank of Central New York.

To learn more about the Food Bank of Central New York, visit https://foodbankcny.org/.

Share

Financial Empowerment Center Builds Stability for Syracuse Residents

In 2008, a housing crisis rocked the national economy, leading government offices to be overrun with phone calls requesting financial and housing assistance. In response, the New York City government quickly developed a new financial assistance program that helped thousands of residents to get back on their feet. Soon that successful program was reproduced in five other major cities, inspiring local government officials, nonprofits and funders to rally together to bring the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) to Central New York in 2019.

The Syracuse FEC addresses a variety of residents’ financial concerns, from paying bills and saving for the future, to settling delinquent accounts and righting the wrongs of identity theft. Additionally, its clients are sometimes trying to establish good credit after a new financial situation such as a divorce, transitioning from a role as a student to a professional, or immigrating to the United States. Along the way, FEC has reported that not only does its clients gain financial stability, they also carve out a financial path in which they can thrive into the future.

Clients are welcome to contact the Syracuse FEC with any financial concerns and they may meet with a counselor as many times as is necessary to get their finances and credit squared away. Any resident, 18 years of age or older, of Syracuse and the surrounding area, is eligible for services regardless of their income or financial status. FEC’s well-trained and knowledgeable counselors help clients with tough-to-navigate situations by explaining how to resolve concerns and even doing the hard work, like providing the letters to validate and/or dispute derogatory accounts or to banks who are charging exorbitant overdraft fees.

Under the shadow of COVID-19, Syracuse’s concentration of poverty has hit an all-time high. According to the Community Foundation’s Life Needs Assessment data, which tracks needs such as transportation, food security and childcare, two of the most troubling problems Syracuse-area residents are currently struggling with are paying bills and saving money for the future. The survey shows that 30% of residents cannot pay monthly bills due to job loss. Another 40% say that they can’t save enough money for their future or for emergencies.

“We helped to bring the FEC here because a piece of the poverty equation is that a lot of people are unbanked, meaning that they don’t have banks and they’re not growing wealth,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Community Foundation. “They don’t have access to home loans and personal loans. The FEC was designed to address that issue, building off of the Jargowsky report, which stated that Syracuse was number one in the nation for concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos in 2015.”

After a gathering in 2019 with city and nonprofit representatives, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Dr. Jonnell Robinson and Terry Eckert wrote a grant to bring the FEC to Syracuse. Across the country, FECs are designed to be a city government service partnered with a nonprofit. In Syracuse, the City of Syracuse partnered with Home HeadQuarters and The United Way of Central New York.

Funding from the City of Syracuse, the Community Foundation, the H.O.P.E. Anti-Poverty Initiative and others allows FEC to offer its services free of charge to all Syracuse residents. In Syracuse, 714 clients have been served since its inception two years ago. It has had over 2,287 sessions in which its clients have asked questions and resolved issues about their finances.

The FEC measures success through four different outcomes: credit, banking, debt and savings. A 35-point rise on a credit report signifies a good credit result. A reduction of non-mortgage debt by at least 10% is considered successful. Accessing safe and affordable bank accounts is successful when accounts are opened, typically after correcting issues that may have been an obstacle to banking found on a Chex Systems report. Lastly, the savings goal is realized when one week’s worth of household income is saved in the bank.

Data shows that Syracuse’s FEC is one of the nation’s top producers, reporting more clients achieving outcomes than other FEC’s around the country. Other FECs average 25% in outcomes, while the Syracuse FEC is averaging 47-50% in successful results. Over Syracuse FEC’s short tenure, it has brought $851,836 of increased savings for clients and reduced $1,751,855 in personal debt.

“We have a woman who, during COVID, lost her job and was living in homelessness,” said Mary Margaret O’Hara, former city manager of the Syracuse FEC. “She started working with one of our counselors and not only found a new job, but was able to find safe and stable housing. She even had a couple of thousand dollars saved in the bank, all in a period of 10 months.”

Another resident who hadn’t worked for fifteen years was financially shocked when his wife was laid off due to the pandemic. He decided to start his own company and his FEC counselor connected him with the small business administration for guidance. He started his business and soon felt financially stable.

Moving into financial stability is important to all of the Syracuse FEC’s clients. It’s also critical to our entire community for Syracuse to build intergenerational wealth and security, especially for our Black and Latino populations. With more economic opportunities, the unhealthy wealth gap in Central New York will be lessened and Syracuse’s residents can thrive into the future.

Share

Spotlight on Data: From Joblessness to Opportunity in the Time of COVID-19

Organizations in Syracuse are sharing information and working together to offer residents new opportunities during the challenging time of COVID-19. The Community Foundation, Centerstate CEO and the Syracuse Economic Opportunity Center (EOC), one of SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Centers, are teaming up to match those looking for work with jobs that need to be filled.

Data from the Community Foundation’s Life Needs Assessment Survey is currently being collected by a variety of local nonprofits and community organizations. From PEACE, Inc. to the Everson Museum of Art, visitors and clients are asked to fill out a simple survey that measures their needs for employment, transportation, childcare and more. Results showed that the percent of people who do not have a full-time, stable job jumped from about 25% in years past to over 60% last year. Looking at data the Community Foundation collects in partnership with the State Department of Labor, we also see that unemployment in Syracuse rose from 1,200 to 16,000 from March through December of 2020.

Dr. Frank Ridzi, vice president of Community Investment at the Community Foundation, is using the data collected from this ongoing community assessment and the community’s new ‘Data Dating’ app to inform organizations of just how many people are jobless and which census tracts are suffering the most. The data may show, for instance, that someone is jobless and ready to be trained but doesn’t have access to childcare.

The Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker tells us that there are 20,000 individuals in the Syracuse metropolitan area who need employment. There are 25,000 positions open in the same area. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms the 25% reduction of low wage jobs in 2020, held disproportionately by Black employees. Due to historical and current patterns of discrimination, racial wealth gaps, generations of disinvestment in schools and neighborhoods, lack of career advancement opportunities and other dynamic factors, barriers to economic self-sufficiency have been created. With new training opportunities, there are possibilities for residents to step into sustainable roles for higher-paying, career-making positions.

Additionally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the two months of August and September 2020, 11,700 workers in the Syracuse metro area left the workforce entirely and are no longer looking for employment. According to the National Women’s Law Center, four times more women than men have left the labor force across the nation. In September, 865,000 women stopped working, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. The Center for American Progress notes that COVID-19 has caused a collapse in the childcare industry and, partnered with less school supervision hours and remote learning, it could drive millions of women out of the workforce, setting gender equity back an entire generation.

For those ready to move back into the workforce, there’s a clear disconnect between those who are seeking employment and job openings that need to be filled. This is where Centerstate CEO’s WorkTrain program is stepping in to assist businesses in recruiting, training and retaining skilled employees for the specific positions that need to be filled. It also helps Syracuse-area residents find access to training necessary to obtain careers.

Centerstate CEO/WorkTrain partners with employers, EOC, the Community Center Collaborative, and numerous other organizations to help people in the job market receive the training and support they need to embark upon a new career. SUNY EOC offers free, community-based academic and workforce development programs to eligible adults and free Chromebook rentals.

In the Syracuse area, new jobs are opening up in the technology, healthcare and manufacturing fields. WorkTrain’s Customer Service Ready program prepares individuals for call center jobs, and Health Train prepares them for entry-level health care opportunities.  These programs are taught at SUNY EOC, and involve a career preparedness curriculum that includes employability, communication, customer service and industry specific training.

Centerstate CEO/Work Train also supports two initiatives headed by the Mayor’s Office – Syracuse Surge and Syracuse Build – which are designed to spur economic growth while diversifying tech and construction.

Chris Montgomery, program counselor from EOC noted, “WorkTrain utilized the Life Needs Assessment data to integrate new services that offer wrap-around support, like childcare and transportation. We want participants to get to work and be successful.”

“There’s a focus and intentionality about making those jobs available to individuals who might not otherwise have access. We know there are people in Syracuse who can do this work, they just haven’t received the right training or found the right path. We try to create those paths,” said Aimee Durfee, Centerstate CEO’s Director of Workforce Innovation.

The bottom line is that both future employees and employers can look at this time as a chance for growth and progress. With organizations sharing information and working together, Syracuse residents have the distinct opportunity to thrive during the most difficult of times.

Share

Eviction Part 2: The Eviction Moratorium, CARES Act and More

This is part two of a two-part series that takes an in-depth look at evictions and how they contribute to the health of Central New York, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a financial crisis for many families. Read more to see how both renters and landlords can avoid evictions and create a better region with higher property values, safer housing and more economic opportunities. Click HERE to read the first part of the series.

Evictions aren’t always avoidable, but in some cases the tenants and landlords just need more information in order to prevent a disaster. Along with ensuring access to safe housing and preventing homelessness, helping residents avoid evictions in Central New York is a major goal for both the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County (VLP) and The Syracuse Tenants Union (STU). Both organizations are distributing information and offering counsel to help tenants live in sustainable housing and avoid red marks on their housing resumés, especially during this turbulent time of a national pandemic and financial crisis.

STU is in the process of creating a tenants’ handbook that gives specifics to rental property tenants on how to make sure they are protected. The handbook, which is currently in production, offers a comprehensive list of what the tenants should know, including a description of their rights, how to seek legal counsel before they have a problem and the importance of keeping receipts and documenting interactions with landlords and Code Enforcement.

VLP offers trainings and legal counsel to residents facing eviction, as well as representation in court. If landlords assist their tenants by recommending counsel from VLP, they often can work out an agreement in which no one ends up in court. “The big goal for us is homelessness prevention,” said Sally Curran, executive director of VLP.

There are many complex laws and proceeds that the two organizations can help residents navigate.

For instance, the 2019 Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act was put into place to help families avoid homelessness and desperation by giving them additional time to plan prior to eviction. The new act gives tenants a 14-day warning, then 10-17 days of notice, a 14-day court adjournment and finally 14 days for tenants to leave. The act was designed to help residents comfortably relocate after researching a new property and building up funds. Previously, tenants were only allowed a few days of nonpayment before eviction proceedings began.

Any eviction can create issues if the tenant tries to rent or buy in the future. The eviction process for both tenants and landlords is time consuming and has major cost implications. Landlords nearly always have legal representation, yet the tenants rarely have counsel because they often can’t afford it. The outcome is that tenants, even if they show up to plead their case, may owe many months’ worth of back rent. The tenants will be asked to present documentation and receipts, yet without them they may not be able to prove hardship. “Having representation in court substantially changes the outcome for the tenants,” said Curran. “The misbalance of power without legal representation becomes really profound.”

After an eviction, tenants may owe thousands in back rent, but that could potentially be reduced if they have access to legal counsel. They also may not receive their hefty security deposit back (even if the code violations existed before they moved in originally), making it that much harder to find a new home. This is how a family may hurriedly choose another poorly kept property and continue the cycle of unreliable housing, putting their confidence and well-being at further risk.

The New York State Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which was established during the COVID-19 crisis to place a temporary moratorium on evictions, is not a free ride. It simply means that you can’t be evicted until after the pandemic crisis has passed. The moratorium is helpful in that it is specifically designed to keep people out of a homeless situation during a pandemic. According to the moratorium, which started on March 16, 2020, no renter who is unable to pay their rent due to circumstances caused by COVID-19 will be evicted until Governor Cuomo changes the terms. The end date of the moratorium has been pushed forward to January 1, 2021 at the time of this article’s release.

The moratorium is not a rent waiver, despite popular belief. If a tenant can pay their rent, then they should pay. At the end of the moratorium, VLP expects that its services will be even more necessary because these renters will need to provide documentation in court proving that it was an unavoidable hardship that caused their non-payment.

Regardless, tenants must pay their unpaid rent at some point. The Act states: “A court can never use unpaid rent that accrued during the COVID-19 period as the basis for a non-payment eviction of a financially burdened tenant; however, a court could impose a money judgment.” While the moratorium is helpful, there’s little chance that people can navigate this information well. Palmer Harvey of The Syracuse Tenants Union states, “The written legal terms of the moratorium don’t make sense to the average person. They need a version in laymen’s terms.” There are currently one million people in NYS who need rental assistance.

In addition, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act may also provide additional funding to offset the burden of unpaid rent. The CARES Act was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27, 2020. This economic relief package delivers this administration’s commitment to protecting the public from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The CARES Act provides economic assistance for workers, families and small businesses. The CARES Act should help those who are able to sufficiently document their inability to pay their rent, but with so many in New York State who need rental assistance, the money could run out. Having legal representation for an eviction moratorium case will benefit the tenant greatly.

Legal representation from a case manager will reduce confusion around what could be a messy legal situation. Avoiding evictions, especially during a pandemic, helps to create a safe and healthy community for everyone, including landlords.

Landlords can help by addressing a situation before it turns into a legal undertaking; everyone will save time and money. Landlords can refer their tenants to VLP to speak with a case manager. Additionally, on September 14, 2020, Syracuse passed an additional renter protection: Now, landlords who have failed to register their one-and-two-family rental homes will be barred from evicting tenants if they do not participate in in the City’s rental registry.

Recently, the COVID-19 Community Support Fund provided grants to VLP and STU. STU is creating educational materials regarding evictions and renters’ rights. Both VLP and STU required personal protective equipment in order to meet with clients and conduct virtual court cases (in which the attorney is present with their client while the judge and landlord are virtual). VLP will also hire and pay law students to help with legal and pre-eviction counsel.

The COVID-19 Community Support Fund is a partnership of the Central New York Community Foundation, The United Way of Central New York, the Allyn Family Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, the Health Foundation for Western & Central New York and the City of Syracuse & Onondaga County. They established the Fund to support nonprofit organizations working with communities who are disproportionately impacted by economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. To date, the fund has raised over $1.8 million from which vital funding is rapidly deployed to support the region’s greatest needs.

Curran states, “Fewer evictions means that in the long-term, Syracuse property values will go up, there will be more economic opportunities and the unhealthy wealth gap in Central New York will be lessened.”

For more information on STU, email syrtenantsunion@gmail.com or visit their Facebook page.

To contact the Volunteer Lawyers Project for legal counsel, visit their website or call 315.471.3409.

Share

Eviction: The Harsh Reality of Living in Syracuse

In this multi-part series, CNYVitals will take an in-depth look at evictions and how they contribute to the health of Central New York, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a financial crisis for many families. Read more to see how both renters and landlords can avoid evictions and create a better region with higher property values, safer housing and more economic opportunities.

Sixty percent of Syracuse residents are renters. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, about 20% of those renters move at least once per year, sometimes more. This is due to a combination of risk factors, such as low wages, inadequate public assistance, code enforcement violations and overpriced housing which have led to dire situations for both tenants and landlords. According to a 2017 study from the Maxwell Community Benchmarks Program, “Syracuse is severely residentially unstable.”

How can tenants live in safe housing that they can afford? And, how can landlords save themselves time and money by avoiding evictions? It’s a complicated problem but the answer may be that Syracuse-area residents can benefit the most if a solution is crafted with both renters and landowners in mind.

When a family is considering renting a home, they ideally would first sit down to decide what they can afford. But this isn’t always the case if they are in a desperate situation, such as fleeing abuse or high levels of lead. When a renter is anxious to put a roof over their heads, it changes the playing field for both tenants and landlords.

Several lending agencies recommend that the cost of an individual’s housing come in at around 30% of their gross income. According to Palmer Harvey, founder of the Syracuse Tenants’ Union, the average individual living in the city of Syracuse makes just over $20,000 per year, which means that if they are living on a single income, they should live in an apartment that costs about $480 per month. A two-bedroom apartment in Syracuse costs around $850 per month. Already, the issue is clear. A single-income family may need to spend upwards of 50% of their wages on housing, meaning less money is available to put food on the table. Since unplanned financial events could always be around the corner, it’s easy to see how a family in this scenario could get behind on their rent.

Public assistance is available to help people get into housing that they can’t quite afford, however it presents some challenges. According to deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services – Economic Security and Temporary Assistance, Jennifer Robinson, the shelter allowance provided by New York State hasn’t been re-configured to accommodate the rising cost of living since 2012. For instance, a family with three children would receive $303 in housing assistance. This inadequate amount increases the risk of tenants entering housing with low maintenance or housing violations. Section 8 Housing can also be helpful by providing vouchers that cover the balance, but there is a long waiting list due to high demand for a limited number of housing vouchers, making them hard to utilize in an urgent situation.

Before a tenant moves into a residence, they can check the Syracuse city website to see exactly what the code violations are for the rental unit or landlord with whom they hope to work. But families in a desperate situation, or without easy access to the internet, may not be able to utilize this resource, leading them to enter unsafe housing. In any case, only about 40% of rental units are registered with the City – meaning many landlords are out of legal compliance and their code violations not necessarily tracked. “Syracuse is the dollar store of real estate,” said Harvey. “People can come here and buy a home for next to nothing, put in $1,000 and start to rent.”

This creates a problem for code enforcement divisions of Syracuse because there can be several “quick fixes” that can be done on a property to help it pass inspection. Landlords may fix a leak, snake a drain or patch a hole, but when the underlying causes aren’t addressed, it leaves the tenant with the same problem month after month.  Harvey says that usually, by the time a tenant has called code enforcement, they have likely been dealing with an issue for months without a fix from the landowner. Calling in problems and reporting landlords could magnify the chances that the tenant will face eviction, so it is often viewed by residents as a last resort.

According to the City of Syracuse study “Below the Line”, there are approximately 11,000 people displaced in Syracuse each year, which can result in over 6,000 children being evicted from their homes.

Evictions, according to Sally Curran, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), can cause a long list of trickle-down problems for evicted families including job loss, depression, health issues and negative educational implications. Evictions affect a person’s ability to build intergenerational wealth by putting a negative mark on their record, which may change their ability to rent a more desirable apartment or buy a house in the future. This scenario can directly perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

What causes an eviction? Laura Rolnick, director of eviction & reentry programs for VLP, stated that 85-90% of evicted tenants simply cannot pay their rent. A much smaller percentage is due to a “hold-over” in which tenants were told to leave but didn’t, or a “claimed lease violation” in which the landlord has claimed that there was a violation of the lease.

The ideal approach is to avoid eviction altogether, but most tenants don’t know what their rights are when facing eviction. Many tenants are also not aware of the terms of their lease or agreement. A rental “lease” fixes the rental cost for the year and makes it harder for landlords to start eviction proceedings. A month-to-month agreement doesn’t provide as much protection to the renter, however notices from landlords are still required. Additionally, on September 14, 2020, Syracuse passed an additional renter protection: Now, landlords who have failed to register their one-and-two-family rental homes will be barred from evicting tenants if they do not participate in in the City’s rental registry. Palmer tells each of her clients: “If you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.”

In part two of this story, we will look at the Eviction Moratorium, the CARES Act and the Tenant Safe Harbor Act. Check back soon for the next part of this series on evictions in Syracuse.

Share