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Lanessa Owens-Chaplin on the Campbell Conversations

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On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, we continue the ongoing conversation regarding the tearing down and replacement of I-81 in Syracuse, and the redevelopment of the surrounding area. Grant Reeher speaks with Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, an attorney and the Director of the Environmental Justice Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. Over the past couple of years, we've had a number of programs on The Campbell Conversations that have dealt with the tearing down and replacement of I-81 and the redevelopment of the area under and around it, which is largely occupied by public housing and sometimes goes by the label of the East Adams neighborhood. Taking the lead on the redevelopment in a partnership with Syracuse Housing Authority, and the Office of the Mayor is a local nonprofit called Blueprint 15 which in turn is affiliated with an organization called Purpose Built Communities, which has led redevelopments and stressed communities across the nation. You can find our previous programs on these topics on The Campbell Conversations web page, which is located under the local programming tab on WRVOs main web page. My guest today has been on the program before to talk about this topic, and she has expressed some concerns about how this process was going. But I wanted to have her back on the program now, as the project continues to develop. Lanessa Owens-Chaplin is an attorney and the director of the Environmental Justice Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union. Lanessa, welcome back to the program.

Lanessa Owens-Chaplin: Thanks. Thanks for having me, Grant. Happy to be here.

GR: I'm glad you can make the time. So let me just start with a really general question that we've kind of covered before, but I want to get your take on it now. What's at stake for the people who are currently living in this area that's going to be redeveloped? Specifically, what are the things they might lose and what are the things that they could gain?

LOC: You know, that's a really great question. I think a lot of times people don't frame it for what's at stake for this actual community that lives there. And I think the stakes are really high. What's at stake for this reconstruction and redevelopment plan is that there's a sense of losing community as a sense of understanding where you belong and your history and that neighborhood. And so this is a really close-knit, tight community. They rely on each other for a lot of daily needs. And so there is a real risk of them losing that sense. And when you live in an area that's concentrated in poverty and has a bunch of other resource deficits that kind of sense of community is almost life-saving. And so this is one of the areas that they will be losing, even if temporary. Right. This will be a loss for some of them.

GR: And what about the other side of the coin is that, you know, what could they stand to gain if this redevelopment goes in, a you know, a direction that you'd like to see it going?

LOC: Well, I think it's important to highlight that not everyone will see those gains that live in that community. Right. And so. Right. And so their redevelopment plan is proposing to do a mixed-income housing complex and so with that comes new neighbors. And so they do stand to gain exposure to new neighbors, meeting new people and having more resources provided to their community such as their health and wellness aspect that they've been talking about in their project. But not all folks will get that benefit. Some folks will be move and relocate and not return for various reasons. And so I think there are some gains here, but not all folks will see that gain.

GR: Yeah, I want to get into that issue of return a little bit later in our conversation. But I wanted to also ask you this general question, and it's a huge one. You could probably speak for hours on this, but if you could distill this down to just the kernel of it, what does housing justice mean to you?

LOC: Oh, so housing justice means that housing is a civil right. Everyone has the right to housing. No one should be unhoused. Right. And so public housing is one of the ways to ensure that folks who fall below the poverty line have affordable housing, which is very different from Section 8 housing. Section 8 housing follows the person, and you can lose Section 8 as a person if you violate several of the rules and regulations that are placed upon you in order to qualify for a Section 8 voucher. Public housing is different because public housing is the unit. Right. And so it's, and those rules and regulations are very different. And so I think public housing provides that housing justice that we want to make sure that our community's most vulnerable continues to have a place to call home.

GR: And I would assume, too, that housing justice for you probably also includes the quality of that housing as well. Right?

LOC: That's absolutely correct. Right. And so when you have the difference between public housing and let's say, privatized housing is that public housing is held to a certain standard and is required to maintain a certain level of quality under the federal guidelines. And reverse we've all heard about slumlords and what privatized housing has done to certain communities. So you run that risk as well.

GR: OK, and then, I want to try to get you to think about the link or maybe the lack of links between the Blueprint 15 redevelopment vision that we're going to keep talking about here and how that fits in with and effects the reconstruction of the highway itself. Or what it looks like now is going to be the replacement of it with a community grid. I mean, I think that's pretty much set. And so how does the New York Civil Liberties Union think about those two things in tandem as well as other projects that might be going on in the Syracuse area? How do these pieces fit together?

LOC: I think for quite some, a few years, we tried to make sure that community members understood that the reconstruction of I-81, redevelopment of I-81, and the Blueprint 15 proposal were two separate projects that coexist. They were not the same and not codependent. I think as we are starting to move closer and closer to the project, we're starting to change our narrative, right? Because there is an interconnectedness between the projects and it has been kind of narrated that Blueprint 15 or the redevelopment of housing is a way to achieve racial justice through I-81 construction. And so we want to decrease drop that narrative, right? Because you're not going to achieve racial justice or housing justice through a program that's separate and apart from interstate I-81’s reconstruction and redevelopment. And so how we're looking at it now as an organization is how do we highlight the areas where they're interconnected, but also make it very clear that that's not going to be the thing that's going to achieve racial justice for this neighborhood.

GR: And this project is being held up as a potential example for not only the rest of the state, but the entire country. I mean, we had Pete Buttigieg come here and talk about it. So obviously it's got the attention of the Biden administration. How do you see the issue in Syracuse fitting in with your organization's broader struggle for housing justice across the state in New York? Is this kind of the test case right now?

LOC: This is absolutely the test case. This is the case that is going to give us momentum to start looking at other areas in New York where they're having the same exact conversations. New York City Housing Authority are having these conversations about redevelopment of their public housing in connection to the redevelopment of their major highways. And so we're seeing this conversation sprout up everywhere. And so this is definitely a case study where we're hoping that we can replicate some of the work that we've done here and continue to do in other parts of the state. And as an ACLU, as a national organization, in other parts of the country as well.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, and we're discussing the redevelopment of the area under and around I-81 in Syracuse. So Lanessa the last time I spoke with you, you had some pretty significant concerns about how the people who are living in this area and the broader community around it were being included and integrated into the planning discussions. What's your impression of how that's been handled more recently, how that process is going on right now?

LOC: Well, what I will say is I think the New York State Department of Transportation, based on our conversations, have been making more of an effort to include the community when it comes to making decisions. I think we saw that example when they decided to listen to the community and move the roundabout to Van Buren which is 2000 feet away from the school. We were asking for at least 600 feet away. So they almost tripled that request, right. And as a part of those conversations, they have they also told us that they were going to create a community neighborhood group that could talk about how the roundabout would look like and contribute to the design of the roundabout. Things like that, I think are really meaningful to the community. So I think they understand that they do play a role and they do have some power in decision making. So I think that there's improvements there. But we're going to wait to see what's in writing, right? So we're going to wait for that final environmental impact statement to come out before we can confirm those things are actually in there. But this is kind of what the conversations have been moving towards. And they've also agreed to do a community land working group where they want community residents on this working group to decide what can be developed in the old area where the roundabout was supposed to be. And so like thinking about that. And that's kind of racial justice, right? We want to make sure that the community folks who've lived here for generations have some decision-making power and what's going to happen to what the D.O.T. is calling wasteland?

GR: Yeah. And I wanted to build off of your example of the roundabout there and bring it back to the redevelopment of the housing specifically. And do you get a sense then that there are sincere plans to create structures of shared governance for this area? As it goes forward and after it's completed, what will that, I guess, political structure look like in that area?

LOC: I think ideally it would become a community land trust, and it's held by the residents who live there and the community land trust, there's a ton of different versions of how you can, you know, procure one. But it requires resources. It requires expertize, but it also requires community input where they get to kind of artificially regulate the property values to make sure that it maintains its affordability. And I think letting the community decide do they want to have apartments, do they want houses, do they want an urban plaza, it's completely up to them and they should be able to make those decisions.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Lanessa Owens-Chaplin. She's the director of the Environmental Justice Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union. And we've been talking about the reconstruction of the area under and around I-81, which is going to be torn down and most likely replaced with a community grid. One of the big issues Lanessa, regarding this project, and you alluded to it in the first half of the program, concerns the right of the residents currently living there. In the area that will be redeveloped to return once this construction is done, there's different ways that might be done. It might be done in phases you know, a little bit and then bring people back or bigger projects. But regardless, it concerns the right of people to come back and looking at the past track record of purpose-built communities. And that's still the model that I understand basically being used for Blueprint 15. That record, I think it's fair to say it's spotty at best. And some of the numbers, particularly from the project in Atlanta, for example, are not very good on the right of return. So the leaders of this project and I've talked to them on this program, whether we're talking about the housing authority or we're talking about the mayor's office or the mayor himself, they've said they're intimately aware of this problem. They are aware that there is this track record, but they're going to do things different here and they're dedicated to having a full right of return. And one of the phrases that I keep hearing is that there will be a one-to-one replacement for housing, which would suggest that, you know, everybody who's there can come back. But one-to-one replacement of housing can mean different things, it seems. And it's somewhat unclear exactly what that is going to mean. So that's a long-winded preface to all of this. But I wanted to make sure that our listeners understood what the context was. How are you viewing this issue at this time? I mean, what's your level of confidence? What are the things that are most concerning you?

LOC: I think what's most concerning to me is the history of purpose-built communities across our country. And as you pointed out, they do have a spotty history. And I think it's good to kind of affirm that the Blueprint 15 organization and their partners are aware of this spotty history. But what's better is if we see what the plan actually says in writing, like the developers who are a private organization, we want to look at those, that paperwork, what's their policy around who they want to return in what areas do they want them to return? I think it's much deeper than just is there going to be a one-to-one ratio, but where's the placement of the folks who are going to be the Section 8 holders? Right. Are they going to be close to the railroads and the folks with market rate? Are they going to be closer to Adams Street? Where are we placing these units? Right. We want to know specifically to make sure there isn't any kind of undertones of discrimination which there tends to be if you're marketing to market-rate people, you want to say, here are all the amenities you're going to get, and that's still going to be a hard sell. And in a city like Syracuse, New York, to say you're going to get all these amenities, but also live close and nearby people who are living in public housing. So I think that's a concern, it's a cultural concern that we're going to have to overcome that has tons of undertones of just racism and classism, that you're going to have to figure out a way to advance through. And what we've learned through purpose-built research is that how they typically get around that is by placing people who are on affordable housing or their version of Section 8 housing in one area of the community and then placing the market rate folks in the other area. And in that case, we're still going to have concentrations of poverty, right? So we haven't really done anything to help the community out. So that's one factor that we really have to look into to make sure that the placement of the residents is equitable and the benefits are equitable. So if there's a penthouse on Adams Street, right, we want to know that there's a recipient of affordable housing in that penthouse and not just the market rate residence. So that's a big issue that we need to make sure that the developer is aware of. But also we want to see it in writing, like they can say whatever they want. And if it's not part of the contractual agreement, then it's not a part of the contractual agreement. And I think the only thing that we're concerned about is while they are talking about a one-to-one ratio, like you said, we're not really sure what that means. Right. Because in public housing, you can certainly adopt an apartment that a significant other or a family member lived in. For example, if I lived with my grandmother and my five siblings and they all moved away and my grandmother passed away, I can still maintain that apartment. Right. And so technically, there are folks who live in public housing as one individual in a three-bedroom. So they're going to turn that three-bedroom now into a one-bedroom. Right. And so what happens with this return ratio where we start having an overabundance of one and two-bedroom apartment and a lack of three and four-bedroom apartments so then were removing the family aspect of the community, which is something that's very, very important because while we may have one person living in a three-bedroom apartment and they're going to be dwindled down to now a one-bedroom apartment, we may have a family living in a two-bedroom apartment that has five siblings. Right. And for whatever reason, they're not reporting those people. And there are several reasons you wouldn't report that are a function of our society if you live in poverty. You may not report this person because maybe they don't have the proper paperwork to be in the country. Right. Maybe they have a conviction in there, your 17-year-old son, and you don't want them to live on the street. So you're not reporting that they live with you because you don't want them to be homeless. So there are various reasons or maybe there's a cousin that's staying with you because, you know, they're having trouble times and you just haven't put them on your lease. So it's very, very hard to claim this one-to-one return because what they’re talking about is was actually on the books of the person that's leasing the apartment, which is oftentimes not reflective of what's actually happening inside the apartment. And so we have a real concern of a loss of family, a loss of connection, and a hyper, hyperactivity of one or two-bedroom apartments, which we know in our area because we have major universities and major education medical institutions. It lends itself to students who are transient and definitely not building that community that we want to see in this in this area.

GR: Those are interesting points. And I haven't thought about the one about, OK, you can come back, but you have to live in this spot as opposed to this spot. And all of you of a particular kind are going to live in this spot. Here's another one that strikes me and I wanted to get your take on it. You've mentioned the Section 8 vouchers several times, and I've done a couple of programs prior to talking about the redevelopment of this area on Section 8 housing across the country. And those vouchers are often very hard to use. A lot of people won't take them. And there's long waiting lists and even for the folks under the best-case circumstances here who are going to be displaced and then they're going to come back, they're going to have to make two moves, minimum and they're going to have to do it in one instance using Section 8 housing. One of the concerns that I had thinking about this for those families is depending on how that first move goes, things could really start to go bad for that family and they could kind of just get lost and then they don't come back and they don't necessarily ask to come back. So it's not considered a problem, so to speak, because it's not like you denied a request. I don't know if that's making sense to you, but I wonder how you think about those kinds of challenges.

LOC: There are so many challenges to source of income discrimination, and that's the Section 8 voucher. That's the disability check. That's the things that are not nontraditional payments for rent. And in New York, we do have a source of income discrimination law. So technically, it's prohibited. It's a really, really hard law to prove and really, really hard law to enforce, just like many other discrimination laws in our state. And it's really hard to prove and it's an uphill battle. And so even if a tenant could prove that they were denied this apartment because of their Section 8 voucher, it would require a ton of resources. It would require them finding assistance from an attorney and then doing a case study to make sure this is actually what happened. So it's just unrealistic to put those expectations on our community's most vulnerable population, again, to kind of overcome these barriers and burdens. And so just to your point, there are various reasons why you could lose your Section 8 voucher. And what we have experienced in our work is that if a tenant complains about a landlord because maybe there's a code violation and that landlord evicts that tenant, the tenant loses their Section 8 voucher because you can't have an eviction on your record, it was an incentive there to live in, you know, slums, right, because you're afraid to report. And then if you report, you could get retaliated against. And again, there are laws against retaliation. Very, very hard to prove and time-consuming. So there's a ton of issues with and I think you just said it so, so perfectly of they're still going to have to relocate. And this idea that entire families can pick up and move and then in a few short years pick up and move again, there's a lot of resources that go into that. You know, it goes into choosing your kid's bussing, finding the nearest grocery store, finding a new bus line. There's a lot of stuff that goes into that. And who's to say they're going to want to move again, even though they have that right to and like you said, because, you know, they lost their Section 8 voucher because they got an eviction on their record now or let's say they got into some criminal trouble. There's so many reasons you can lose your voucher or they just don't have the funding to move back, the resources to move back, then no, no harm, no foul. They're just removed off the list and they're not counted as a tenant who didn't return because they had the option to or the right to.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is the attorney, Lanessa Owens-Chaplin. Now, we are beginning, I think, to get some glimpses of what the actual layout of the new construction might look like. There are some things out there. Do you have any reactions or major concerns about the architecture that you're seeing so far and the way things are being proposed?

LOC: I think the major concerns are there's an overabundance of one and two-bedroom apartments, OK? And I think the other major concern is, like I mentioned before, the placement of the people. We want to see where the people are going to go. We're having our community meetings now and some of the concerns that our community members raised was they're tearing down McKinney Manor. And that name has a very significant, substantial history in that community. So Judge McKinney was the first judge that drafted the landlord-tenant laws for Syracuse housing residents, and it means a lot to them. And so there is some concern around the naming of the apartments and are they going to really honor the historical presence that's in that community.

GR: Something that a colleague expressed to me in this vein was a concern about the parking scheme that she saw with large parking areas in the center of the housing block rather than street parking. And she said that street parking actually is associated with lower crime, more active pedestrian street presence, which is a good thing usually. Do you have any specific thoughts about that or is that too much in the weeds right now?

LOC: I think that's, I don't have any specific stats on that. That's way outside of my wheelhouse. But I think that they should definitely listen to the experts who have been tracking and following this type of development for the best option.

GR: OK, we've got about 3 minutes left or so. I want to try to squeeze in two more questions, at least if I can, maybe a third, but definitely two. First one, someone listening to this program, if they want to learn more about the kinds of work that you folks are doing and your concerns and the activism in that regard and perhaps also help and get involved, where should they go? What should they do?

LOC: I mean, I think they can start by just going to the NYCLU’s website. We have the NYCLU/I81, or they can email me directly at LChaplin at NYCLU dot org. We are hosting community meetings where we do every Tuesday at 2:00 where it's still virtual. So we're doing our Zoom Tuesday talks and we're planning a more robust three-part series walking tour in August. So the end of August we're going to be doing a walking tour. So more than happy to have folks come and do the walking tour where we're going to be talking about the new placement of the roundabout and the community in general, and we're going to be walking around the neighborhood. So if that's something that interest folks just, you know, just go to our website or just send me an email.

GR: That's a great idea to actually see it on the ground like that. I'll also put a plug in selfishly for something that that I've been a part of, and I think you're familiar with this effort, but with some colleagues, we've been working on a project related to this called City Scripts, and if someone Googles that and there's a lot of information they can find there, including some interviews with you. So let me ask this other question in the minute and a half or so we've got remaining. What are the other issues that the New York Civil Liberties Union, other than the stuff that we've been talking about this half-hour, are on the front burner for you right now? A lot of things going on in the state of New York, just, you know, which two or three or the things that are of most pressing interest to your organization?

LOC: I think right now we are looking at the redistricting of the maps. So redistricting is a major issue for us. Bail reform rollbacks is another major issue for us. And we're working right now with the city of Syracuse on their surveillance technology. So those are the three major issues that we're looking at in the central New York area.

GR: OK, and on that third one, the surveillance technology. Just tell me a little bit more in 30 seconds or so what your concern is there with the cameras that have been discussed?

LOC: Well, there's a proposal, and I think the public comment period is open right now that they're going to be introducing new technology that can be license plate readers. The license plate readers have access to your personal information. And so our concerns are really your rights of privacy. We want to know for example, how long are they going to retain this information? Are they going to be able to sell your information, who can access your information? So these are all things that we've been looking at as like a right to privacy issue. And we've seen it be abused in cities like New York City, where anyone in the police department can access your information no matter the job title or job duties. And they use that information to target Muslim Americans. And so we've seen it be used in a way that we want to make sure that this Syracuse surveillance technology is not going to be used in that way here. And so I think our major concern is protecting people's rights to privacy and making sure that it's not used to target specific communities.

GR: Well, that sounds like a whole other program, but we'll have to leave it there. That was Lanessa Owens-Chaplin. Lanessa, I want to thank you again for taking time to talk with me.

LOC: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GR: You bet. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.