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Rod Watson: How a new study on Buffalo's old racial disparities gives community ideas to build on

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An aerial view of Sycamore Street show scores of vacant lots where houses were demolished. A new report says such demolitions without a coordinated redevelopment strategy "wreaked havoc across the East Side." 

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Urban Affairs Editor/Columnist

I write a weekly column, most often about socioeconomic and political issues affecting people of color and the disadvantaged in Western New York.

When the annual State of the City speech is given next year, presumptive five-term Mayor Byron Brown will no doubt laud what his administration has done for Buffalo in explaining how his write-in campaign vanquished “radical socialist” India Walton, the Democratic primary victor.

But assuming Brown receives every single write-in vote once they are counted, it means that a first-time candidate with a trunk full of baggage still got at least 41% – and won three of nine city districts – against a former Common Council member, state senator and four-term incumbent.

That is a compelling rebuke from a significant portion of the Buffalo population.

An even more searing indictment came shortly before the election when the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies released a report on what could be called the State of One Part of the City – the Black part. That’s the part successive administrations have too often ignored, except for platitudes.

“The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present” was a follow-up to a similar center report three decades ago to see how much – or how little – things have improved for Blacks. As the report notes, that time frame includes 27 consecutive years of Democratic administration under the last two mayors.

Drawing on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, UB, Erie County and other sources, the report finds minimal progress. For instance:

• The Black unemployment rate was 18% in 1990; today it remains in double digits at 11%.

• Average Black household income was $39,350 in constant dollars; now it’s $42,000.

• Approximately 38% of Blacks had incomes below the poverty line; today it’s 35%.

• There were more African Americans without a high school diploma than with a college degree; that remains true today, though the ratio is narrowing.

• About 33% of Blacks owned their homes in 1990; today it’s about 32%.

“The Black lament, ‘The harder we run, the further we fall behind,’ seems appropriate for Black Buffalo,” the report concludes. “Everything changed, but everything remained the same.” This despite “Black faces in high places,” including in the posts of mayor, Council president, police commissioner and school superintendent as well as positions of influence in the county and state legislatures.

The report looks at everything from residential segregation to substandard rental housing and rent gouging – 36% of East Side residents spend more than 50% of their income on housing. It cites the underdevelopment of Black neighborhoods, widespread demolitions and the “land banking” of vacant lots that “takes thousands of residential parcels out of circulation and holds them for future development.”

“You can’t build your way out of this issue,” said Henry L. Taylor Jr., the center’s founding director, who outlined the report’s key findings in a forum shortly before Election Day. He noted that the city has built more than 1,000 rental units since 2000, but that still constitutes less than 5% of total housing; and most of those new units were along Main Street and downtown, not in “areas where they’re really needed.”

How serious is the vacant lot problem? In a panel discussion during the forum, UB’s Robert Silverman, an expert on community development and affordable housing, said Google Earth images show most East Side neighborhoods have more vacant parcels than occupied ones.

If those images grab your attention, try driving around the East Side, suggested UB law professor Athena Mutua, who called the experience “startling” and noted such issues operate “at the intersection of race and class.”

Ron Stewart, chair of SUNY Buffalo State’s Sociology Department, pointed to his field’s use of the term “life chances” to put the confluence of issues outlined in the report in stark terms.

“What makes white lives and their life chances matter more than Black lives?” he asked.

The Brown administration obviously has a different take. In an emailed response to the report, a spokesman acknowledged that “racial disparities, especially along economic, educational and housing lines have grown.

“But that is not unique to Buffalo,” Michael DeGeorge said, calling it a “national phenomena” resulting from federal policies “that favored capital accumulation over more inclusive prosperity.” He pointed to Biden administration efforts to reverse the trend, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

“The Mayor and Council adopted a comprehensive anti-poverty program designed to address the housing, health, economic development, and workforce needs of the City in its American Rescue Plan proposal,” he wrote, adding that they also will pursue other funding and that “no city has the capacity to eradicate poverty on its own so there is no reason to illogically name any one organization as responsible."

As for the demolitions, he pointed to the city’s population decline since the 1950s, abetted by federal policies that facilitated white flight but “erected obstacles to Black home ownership and equal employment.” He said aggressive demolitions combined with “land-banking and place-based development” stabilized neighborhoods by removing drug houses, dog-fighting houses and blighted properties.

DeGeorge also said the mayor made diversifying the city workforce a high priority, just as other ethnic groups “used public employment as a vehicle to foster economic security for their community.” He also pointed to the mayor’s summer youth jobs program, which exposes kids to a wide variety of fields and will spur “a generational change that will accumulate benefits to the Black community over time.”

That much is true; the youth jobs program is one of Brown’s most laudable efforts. And some houses no doubt needed to come down. The debate is over the scale of the demolitions and what happened – or hasn’t happened – on the vacant lots.

Nor is there any doubt that cities have been starved for funding. But spending new money in the same old ways is not likely to solve the problem, and the numbers in the report speak for themselves in terms of the efficacy of past approaches. In fact, Taylor said a review of data shows the city spent $179 million on the East Side between 2002 and 2016, but for the most part it was spent “without any rhyme or reason.”

The report calls for a multifaceted strategy because, while Buffalo’s poverty has gotten a lot of lip service, the problems are much wider. In fact, the report says, the focus should be on changing what it means to be poor rather than ending poverty.”

Asked to elaborate on that distinction, Taylor explained in an interview that aid like food stamps might help get people over an income threshold, but won’t be enough to change their lives if they are paying exorbitant rents for substandard housing, their kids attend lousy schools and they lack adequate health care and jobs.

“We’ve asked the wrong question. We’ve formulated the problem in the wrong way,” he said, pointing to a “mountain of evidence” that neighborhood conditions lead to residents’ economic plight, not the other way around.

As a result, the report’s recommendations include stepping up code enforcement to improve housing without raising rents by, for example, creating a private sector housing fund or a hospitality sales tax or hotel occupancy tax to subsidize the rents of low-income tenants. Other suggestions range from training residents themselves to do the work that needs to be done in the neighborhoods, to developing a resident-controlled land trust as part of a strategy for dealing with the many vacant lots.

The report and the forum can be found at

Ironically, Taylor sees hope in the failure to systematically tackle these interrelated issues.

“This is not depressing at all. What would be depressing is if, for 31 years, we had been working on the problem and hadn’t been able to solve it. Now that would be depressing,” he said.

“It’s complex and it’s difficult,” he acknowledged. “But you cannot solve a problem that you will not work on.”

The report calls for the city to have the Buffalo Center for Health Equity appoint a committee of East Side stakeholders along with city, county and business representatives to produce a plan. The Rev. George Nicholas, chair of the African American Health Equity Task Force and forum moderator, said they are already working with groups like the Urban League and LISC. He wants to have a task force come up with plan, including funding proposals, within a year.

But we’ve been here before – 31 years ago, to be exact.

On the other hand, Walton’s unexpected primary victory and strong showing in the general election indicates many Buffalonians are fed up, meaning this report is landing at an opportune time.

DeGeorge said the administration wants the input of a variety of organizations as it tackles poverty, including “the Buffalo Center for Health Equity but not exclusively them.” That sounds tantamount to “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” But elected officials stiff-arm this growing community-based movement at their peril.

Without the scary label – or continuing education about what the label really means – future mayoral or Council candidates could prove even more effective at the ballot box than Walton if the city doesn’t work with the community and become a partner rather than an obstacle.

The “Harder We Run” report gives the community something concrete to build on – and candidates something to run on.

Any smart politician will take notice. So should the rest of them.


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Urban Affairs Editor/Columnist

I write a weekly column, most often about socioeconomic and political issues affecting people of color and the disadvantaged in Western New York.

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