Equal Housing Opportunities in New York: An Evaluation of 
Section 8 Housing Programs in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse

Chapter 7

Section 8 Housing in the Syracuse Area  

This chapter provides a portrait of the Section 8 housing situation in the Syracuse area covering such topics as demographics of the area, barriers to fair housing and mobility, and housing administrators’ concerns. Divided into four sections, it first illustrates the demographic attributes of the city and surrounding area, then describes the four agencies that administer Section 8 programs. The chapter also contains statements from three fair housing organizations and the four Section 8 housing program administrators serving the Syracuse metropolitan area.

Demographic Characteristics

Syracuse is located in central New York in Onondaga County. The total area of the city is 26 square miles. Located in the center of a farming region, its manufacturing industries produce electronic equipment, electrical appliances, chinaware, automobile parts, and roller bearings.

In 1980 Syracuse had a population of 197,217, of which 10.8 percent were black, 1.1 percent Hispanic, and 0.5 percent Native American. Since then, Syracuse has experienced a decline in population. According to the 1990 census, the population declined 17 percent to 163,860. However, the minority population continued to grow, and in 1990, blacks made up 20.2 percent, Hispanics 2.5 percent, and Native Americans 1.3 percent of the population.1

According to the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice In Onondaga County, of the 14,683 low-income renter households eligible for Section 8, some 3,142 or 21.4 percent were minority and 7,063 or 48.1 percent were female headed.2

Section 8 Housing Agencies

In Syracuse and throughout Onondaga County, four separate public housing agencies administer Section 8 programs. They are as follows:

The first three entities serve primarily the city or the village of its name, while Christopher Community serves a consortium of the remaining 32 municipalities in the county, with the village of Manlius acting as the “lead agency,” i.e., the formal entity with which HUD contracts for the subsidies.

The number of subsidies administered by each program, together with the ethnic and racial breakdown of minorities in the program, is shown in table 5.

Table 5     Section 8 Agency Profile

# of subsidies

     % black

  % Hispanic





North Syracuse




East Syracuse




Christopher Community




Source: HUD Community Database (1996 data).

Fair Housing Advocates

The Advisory Committee heard from representatives of three local agencies, the Fair Housing Council of Central New York, Legal Services of Central New York, and the Urban League of Syracuse, which provide support and legal services to low-income individuals who believe that they are the victims of discrimination. These organizations stated their main concerns as follows: 

The panelists provided the Advisory Committee with examples of these concerns and others during their presentations.

Fair Housing Council of Central New York

Merilee Witherell is the executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Central New York, a nonprofit organization that prepared the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice In the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County. According to Ms. Witherell, the overall minority population in Syracuse is 27 percent, which includes 20 percent African Americans. In Onondaga County, the minority population is 3.1 percent, which includes 1.3 percent African Americans. For the village of East Syracuse, the overall minority population is 2 percent, while in North Syracuse the minority population is 2.2 percent.3 She said:  

In Syracuse the percentage of minorities participating in the active Section 8 program is 66 percent, with 62 percent being African American. In Onondaga County the overall minority participation in the Section 8 Program is 14 percent. So we can see a big difference in the participation rates for African Americans between the city and the county. Any effort to facilitate the ease of movement for Section 8 residents between these areas will have a positive effect on integration.4

In her recent study of the Section 8 program in the city of Syracuse, Ms. Witherell found that more than half of the Section 8 participants in the city of Syracuse live in areas that mirror their own racial makeup.5 In other words, “If it is a white Section 8 recipient, they live in an area that is predominately white. If they are African American, they live in an area which is predominantly … African American.”6

She attributed this lack of mobility to a number of reasons, including lack of information and assistance given to Section 8 recipients and also to residency preferences by suburban programs. Illustrating the plight of a Section 8 recipient, she said:

Somebody, who is new to the program and doesn’t know how it works, would think “This is where I applied and here’s where I go find my place to live,” and they are given a landlord list with apartments in that same jurisdiction. There’s a prevailing understanding that this is where you go, and this is what you do, and you do it within 60 days or else. As a recipient, there isn’t a lot of thought about other options.7

She suggested that the HAs could combine their landlord lists, allowing recipients a greater choice of where they use their subsidy. This would facilitate the process of greater integration throughout the Syracuse area as a whole.

Residency preferences, Ms. Witherell believes, are racially exclusionary because of the demographics of the area. With a 2 percent minority population in those villages and a 27 percent minority population in the city of Syracuse, “we’re talking about a discriminatory impact,” she said. According to Ms. Witherell, the intent may not be to discriminate against minorities, but “if you give a preference to those living within your village, and your village is overwhelmingly white, then the effect of that policy is to put minorities at a disadvantage for this important opportunity.”8

Ms. Witherell also discussed discrimination faced by minorities attempting to find housing. She said that the fair housing testers themselves often do not know they have encountered discrimination. Only by comparing reports side-by-side can they tell whether discrimination occurred. She has seen differences in rent as great as $100 per month quoted to both black and white tenants for the same unit within an hour of one another. She cites examples where prospective African American tenants were told only one unit was available—in building A—whereas the prospective white tenants were shown units in buildings in D, E, and F, and that there were three or four units available. Also, some complexes do not require credit checks of prospective white tenants, but consistently require them of minorities, she said.9  

Ms. Witherell believes that such subtle, and not so subtle discrimination prevents Section 8 recipients from using their subsidies in certain areas. She said:

We’re talking about folks who may not be trained and may not be as assertive as those of us who advocate on their behalf. A lot of people who are poor and who are just hoping for an opportunity are very willing to accept what is offered to them. And if what is offered them is less than a good opportunity, it still may be something more than what they’ve gotten, and they’ll take it. And that doesn’t make it right and that doesn’t make it fair housing or equal housing opportunity.10

Legal Services of Central New York

Chris Cadin, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, reported a Section 8 success story of one of his clients:

She was a young minority mother who had decided that she had to leave. She just lived off South Avenue. She had been robbed. She had been raped. Her neighborhood and her apartment complex were very unsafe. She had obtained a Section 8 certificate and was therefore able to move somewhere else. She did not want to stay in the apartment that she was in. She wanted to start a nursing program at Onondaga Community College. She did not have a car. She was on welfare. The goal of getting a nursing degree from OCC was only a hope. She thought that her Section 8 would be her key to get this degree, and it was.11

She located an apartment near the Onondaga Community College, but it was beyond the fair market rent that was available for her household size on her certificate. The apartment complex, according to Mr. Cadin, was willing to rent to her, and they were willing to go down in their rent. She would have been the first black person in this apartment complex. They had never had a Section 8 person in their complex before and they were willing to try.12 He said:

Through negotiations on my part with the landlord and through negotiations by the Syracuse Housing Authority—Terry Kresser in particular—in agreeing to an incremental rent increase, we were able to get this person into a fairly expensive apartment, and get her on her degree program. She went on to complete her RN degree.13

Mr. Cadin believes that the community needs to hear success stories, and that the Section 8 program is a way to get people out of poverty and into neighborhoods where they will have an opportunity to succeed.

The Syracuse Urban League

Julia Burnette is a housing locator with the Syracuse Urban League. In her position, she relocates people who have been evicted. When she first started, most of the people who were evicted were on public assistance. Over the past few years, most of the evicted people she has relocated have been the working poor.14 She sees Section 8 as a tool in helping these families, but acknowledges that she has encountered resistance from landlords to taking Section 8 recipients.    

According to Ms. Burnette, many landlords are not familiar with the Section 8 program. “They have heard of it, but they have never used it. They have their own stereotypes of what the subsidy program will mean.”15 She recommends greater outreach and educational efforts to landlords:

You have to hammer away at their reservations. You have to educate them. You have to bend their arm. You have to really let them see that this is not the multiheaded hydra that they fear, that it’s a good program that will be beneficial to them as landlords, as well as to their perspective tenants.16

Section 8 Administrators

The Advisory Committee heard from representatives of the four local housing authorities that provide Section 8 programs: Christopher Community, the village of East Syracuse, the North Syracuse Housing Authority, and the Syracuse Municipal Housing Authority. The representatives from these programs discussed landlord participation, residency preferences, waiting lists, and HUD directions for affirmatively furthering mobility.  

Christopher Community

Christopher Community, according to its director Peter White, is responsible for administering over 500 subsidies for 32 towns and villages outside of Syracuse, East Syracuse, and North Syracuse. As to interprogram mobility, White said, “We accept on portability those [Section 8 recipients] from the [Syracuse] Housing Authority who wish to go to suburban locations, and in turn we have people in the suburbs who occasionally want to go back to the city.”17 He stated that Christopher Community does not administer any subsidies within the city of Syracuse, but that the two agencies rely on transfer and portability procedures instead of direct administration of their own subsidies if a family chooses to cross the municipal boundaries.

Christopher Community has 2,000 applicants on a waiting list, which is handled in chronological order. The turnover rate is 40–50 a year. “We have applied every year over the last 4 or 5 years for new subsidies; we just don’t get a high enough ranking [from HUD] as to need more,”18 Mr. White said. A recent study commissioned by Christopher Community revealed approximately 10,000 eligible families for the Section 8 program in its jurisdiction. “The need for subsidy is great. It’s growing for the disabled, for the single mother with kids, for minorities. The need is there. There’s no doubt about it,”19 Mr. White told the Committee.

According to the 1996 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice In Onondaga County, Christopher Community  received a high rating in conducting outreach on a broad basis that included the entire county and the city of Syracuse, and also in providing for a wide choice of participating landlords.20

Village of East Syracuse

The village of East Syracuse maintains a residency preference for its Section 8 program according to its director, Bruce Gouhey. Justifying the need for residency preferences, he commented:

Our income as a housing authority depends on the number of housing units we have. If we were to get rid of the residency requirements, we would see tremendous fluctuations in the number of people. . .we might decrease and as a result our funding would vary.21

Asked what purpose residency requirements served, Mr. Gouhey replied, “For us the residency requirement serves two purposes, one, it funds our agency, rather than the number of people in the housing authority funding the agency. And two is so we can directly serve the community.”22

The population of the village of East Syracuse, according to Mr. Gouhey, is 3,343, with approximately 735 rental households.23 His HA administers 90 Section 8 units and has a waiting list of 136 people with a 2–3 year wait. Of the 136 potential Section 8 recipients on the list, 10 are African American, 3 Native American, 1 Asian American, and 5 Hispanic.24

Addressing the issue of whether residency requirements are exclusionary, Mr. Gouhey explained:

I think they are only exclusionary if their intent is to exclude. I don’t see them necessarily as having to be exclusionary. There are over 3,000 families with certificates or vouchers throughout the county; any one of them can move into the village at any time if they want to. In fact, we would welcome them because our finances are tight.25

“It doesn’t really matter to us,” he continued, “as long as there is room. As I see it, there should be room for easily 10 or 20 more families than we have right now on our rolls.”26

North Syracuse Housing Authority

Residency requirements are also used for ranking at the North Syracuse Housing Authority, according to Suzanne Wass, program administrator. She said: 

We use Federal preferences27 even though we don’t have to anymore, but we have not found a better way to serve the neediest population. [We also have] a 1-year residency requirement. Because the housing authority was established to serve the Village of North Syracuse, we feel a primary responsibility to the residents of the Village of North Syracuse.28

Ms. Wass added that the North Syracuse Housing Authority, through cooperative agreements with other jurisdictions, accepts nonresident Section 8 transfers. It has a cooperative agreement with Christopher Community, the village of East Syracuse, and the city of Syracuse to allow people to transfer immediately upon being issued a voucher or certificate, rather than having to fulfill a 1-year residency requirement.29

The North Syracuse Housing Authority is in the process of setting up a computer system to track racial and ethnic data.30 At present, however, only data on elderly and disabled households are available. These households constitute 61.7 percent of the agency’s participants.31 She also noted that most of her participating households resided in one of the two census tracts that contain the village, primarily because there were more apartment complexes in that tract.32 She stated that her agency would have no reservations about sharing its landlord list with other housing agencies in the area.33

The Syracuse Municipal Housing Authority

Administering more than 2,600 of the approximately 3,500 Section 8 subsidies in the Syracuse metropolitan area, the Syracuse Municipal Housing Authority (SHA), according to Fred Murphy, executive director, is by far the largest of the four agencies. SHA also has the highest minority representation in its program, at more than 65 percent. When a subsidy holder from the city of Syracuse wishes to move outside of the city, it is often impossible for any one of the other three agencies to absorb that household into its own program because the smaller agencies have very few subsidies available from turnover.34 Consequently, the agencies must resort to a complex cross-billing procedure in which the receiving HA undertakes some of the tasks of dealing with the household and landlord in its service area and then bills the sending agency for its services.35

When asked what proactive steps the SHA has taken to affirmatively further mobility in the Section 8 program, Mr. Murphy said that he had not seen it as part of his responsibility in administering the Section 8 program to proactively assist minority or other subsidy holders in moving out of the city or to other areas of lower poverty concentration:

I don’t believe that we take any extraordinary methods to proactively try to encourage people to explore neighborhoods or communities where they would maybe not normally think available to them, or that they may not want to do that. I suppose it would be almost institutionally arrogant for us to try to do that. So we, I expect, leave people to their own devices and make sure that nobody blocks them from following their dreams. . . . We don’t try to instill a desire for people to break new ground or break into new neighborhoods.36

With respect to identifying low-poverty census tracts as mobility options, SHA’s Section 8 director Terry Kresser said that he did not have exact figures but estimated that only about one-third of the units rented by SHA subsidy holders were outside of high-poverty census tracts.37 Data are available, he indicated, to compare minority and nonminority concentrations of subsidy holders in each census tract, but he did not have that data available for the Advisory Committee.38

The Advisory Committee raised questions regarding SHA’s interpretation of its role to assist minorities in moving out of areas of high poverty and racial concentration, and the direction it has received from HUD with respect to this issue. As Mr. Murphy’s quotation below shows, it is SHA’s view that it is neither SHA’s duty to help minorities to move out of areas of high poverty, nor has it been prompted by HUD to act affirmatively to promote greater residential mobility:  

It’s a very difficult question. And to answer it honestly, I would  have to say that we  have not, to this  point, considered as part of our mission to break what have been historic housing standards—or housing impacted neighborhoods—to try to break open impacted neighborhoods. I think it is accurate to say that we haven’t been asked to do it, either by any supervising agency, or any supervising entity, to make that part of our mission. I think that that is probably the largest reason . . . why we have not even raised the question of ourselves.39


1  Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CP–1–36, 1990 Census of Population, General Population Characteristics, New York 48, table 3 (1992).

2  Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice In Onondaga County, 1996, p. 13.

3  Merilee Witherell,statement before the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, factfinding meeting, Syracuse, NY, Nov. 20, 1996, transcript, p. 138 (hereafter cited as Syracuse Transcript).

4  Ibid.

5  Ibid., p. 139.

6  Ibid.

7  Ibid., p. 143.

8  Ibid., pp. 313–14.

9  Ibid., p. 310.

10  Ibid., p. 144. 

11  Cadin statement, Syracuse Transcript, p. 285.

12  Ibid., p. 288.

13  Ibid., pp. 288–89.

14  Burnette statement, Syracuse Transcript, pp. 290–91.

15  Ibid., p. 297.

16  Ibid.

17  White statement, Syracuse Transcript, p. 60.

18  Ibid., p. 81.

19  Ibid., p. 82.

20  Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice In Onondaga County, 1996,  p. 13.

21  Gouhey statement, Syracuse Transcript, p. 111.

22  Ibid., p. 112.

23  Ibid., p. 111.

24  Ibid.

25  Ibid., p. 112.

26  Ibid., pp. 112–13.

27  Federal preferences are discussed in chap. 1.

28  Wass statement, Syracuse Transcript, pp. 92–93.

29  Ibid., p. 93.

30  Ibid., p. 102.

31  Ibid., p. 101.

32  Ibid., p. 105.

33  Ibid., p. 109.

34  Ibid., pp. 128–30.

35  Ibid.

36  Murphy statement, Syracuse Transcript, p. 50.

37  Kresser statement, Syracuse Transcript, pp. 40–41.

38  Ibid., p. 41. The data on all Section 8 programs are now available online through HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research’s “Picture of Subsidized Households” <www.hud.gov /fha/mfh/fharent.htlm>.

39  Murphy statement, Syracuse Transcript, pp. 176–77.