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No one's home

The number of vacant houses in Syracuse continues to grow, despite falling prices and concerned community organizations.

Gangs. Drug dealers. Litter. These are some of the problems Carolyn Evans-Dean has dealt with, living in a neighborhood packed with vacant houses, she said.

“These are neighborhoods that have pretty much been abandoned,” Evans-Dean said. “They’ve been left to undesirables. Nobody has been policing these areas and they are places where people have just let things slide.”

Syracuse has nearly 1400 vacant houses, according to Home Headquarters, a local housing non-profit organization. Although every neighborhood has had to deal with the problem, the south side of Syracuse, where Evans-Dean has lived for the past 21 years, is one of the neighborhoods that has been hit hardest.

“Most people feel that something needs to be done,” Evans-Dean said.

High concentrations of vacant houses cause a number of problems. They can bring down the property value of other houses in the neighborhood, pose safety risks, and are often a sign of tax delinquencies.

Depending on their proximity, the property value of a home can decrease because of the safety risks and the appearance of vacant houses.

“You can do all you want for your personal property and the one next door is falling down, your property isn’t going to be worth that much,” Evans-Dean says.

Another concern is that vacant houses can become magnets for crime.

“When a house falls into disrepair, a drug dealer may take up residence in it,” Evans-Dean said.

Criminals aren’t the only ones who may venture into vacant homes, said Steve Cavuto, Syracuse deputy fire chief. “Kids, and in the wintertime homeless people, may use the homes for different purposes. That use causes danger to the people occupying or entering them.”

The fire department works with the city’s code enforcement division to track vacant houses. The fire department will frequently drive through neighborhoods to make sure vacant houses are boarded up so they can’t be entered. It’s a preventive measure so no one gets hurt, Cavuto says.
Increased activity in a vacant house can also increase fire hazards. “A vacant home poses additional risk. In the event that things go wrong, it’s difficult for my guys to escape,” Cavuto says.

Vacant houses can also be tax delinquent. These are “problem properties,” says Ben Walsh, director of urban initiatives for the Syracuse Metropolitan Development Authority. Owners who can’t pay taxes will often abandon the property. The city must then assume the cost of the property.

“Property owners that aren’t paying their taxes, are a problem for our local municipalities that are already struggling to come up with enough resources to operate,” Walsh said.


There are a number of non-profit organizations in Syracuse that are trying to fix the vacant housing problem. Since the problem permeates every neighborhood, the city doesn’t have the resources to fix it alone.

Home Headquarters is the largest non-profit organization that deals with vacant houses in Syracuse. With the help of grants from the state and federal government, Home Headquarters buys vacant houses, then refurbishes and sells them.

Home Headquarters targets particular areas and acquires some of the worst properties there. “If you try to solve the problem all at once, frankly there’s not enough resources available to fix the problem,” Quaglia says.

But oftentimes the cost to renovate a house outweighs its market value by the time when Home Headquarters is finished. If the house is in a neighborhood with a lot of vacant houses, it might not be as valuable as it would be elsewhere, said Daniel Stazzone, real estate administrator for Home Headquarters.

“We’re going to spend $80,000 to $100,000 to renovate a place. It’s market value after that might be $80,000. It might be less,” Stazzone says.

Home Headquarters only owns 150 of the nearly 1400 vacant houses in Syracuse. But new legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could bring more money to Syracuse to fix the problem.

“If we could deal with the vacant houses it would be half the battle,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s legislation would provide 30 U.S. cities  $300 million to rehabilitate and demolish vacant houses.

“It’s taking a neighborhood and lifting it up and making it a jewel and an economic magnet for all of Central New York.”

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