In 1990, researchers at the University at Buffalo took a comprehensive look at what it was like to be Black and living in Buffalo. They found large numbers of African Americans were out of work, living in poverty, lacked a college degree and were renters rather than homeowners.
The report predicted that the “downward trend” for the city’s Black population would continue unless an action plan was put in place to halt the decline.
The “portrait of Black Buffalo remains unchanged” more than 30 years later, a follow-up study released this week has found.
The report concluded that Black Buffalonians “have not made progress over the past thirty-one years.”
The problems are actually getting worse on the city’s predominantly Black East Side, researchers found.
City leaders, including the last three mayors — Jimmy Griffin, Anthony Masiello and Byron Brown — never fully invested in a comprehensive action plan to address core problems facing Buffalo’s Black residents, the study concluded.
Instead, the city continued to emphasize a failed agenda that promoted economic development in certain areas of the city while “marginalizing and under-developing” Black communities and neighborhoods, Taylor said.
“They’ve done OK with their priorities,” he said of city leaders. “They’ve developed the waterfront. They developed downtown. Those are the things that all of the mayors prioritized, but it says that they have not tackled the fundamental problems facing Black and Brown people, and that’s serious.”
The original study, titled “African Americans and the Rise of Buffalo’s Post-Industrial City, 1940 to Present,” painted a bleak picture when it was published three decades ago.
At the time, the study concluded that 18 percent of Black residents were unemployed and 38 percent lived below the poverty line. In 1990, African-American households earned an average of $39,350 per year. There were more Black residents without a high-school diploma than with a college degree, too. Only 33 percent of Black residents in Buffalo owned their home, and most were concentrated in East Side neighborhoods.
The follow-up study, released Friday, used the 1990 report as a reference point to measure progress over the past three decades.
It focused on employment, income, housing and neighborhood conditions and relied on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, including statistics from the five-year assessment known as the American Community Survey.
The new report, entitled “The Harder We Run, The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and The Present,” found:
- Unemployment in the Black community remains in the double-digits, 11 percent.
- 35 percent of African American residents live below the poverty line.
- Average household income for Black residents increased only slightly, to $42,000.
- Homeownership among African American residents dropped to 32 percent.
- High-school dropouts still outnumber college graduates.
- Most in the Black community are still renters and they pay higher rates for housing, which is often substandard.
- African-American residents live in poor health conditions, and many die prematurely because of it.
“Everything has changed, but everything has remained the same,” the study notes over and over again.
“The ascent of Blacks to political office and other positions of power and influence have not reduced Black inequality, nor has it eased Black misery or suffering. Today, just as it was thirty-one years ago, Black Buffalo lives in underdeveloped neighborhoods and experiences oppressive and exploitative conditions every single day.”
The latest study identified seven “root problems,” which include:
- Segregation. Researchers found communities in Buffalo and Erie County remain segregated based on “house value and social class exclusivity, measured by income and educational attainment.” They argue that the segregation “traps” African-American residents in “low-value, marginalized and underdeveloped neighborhoods” that become “sites of predatory inclusion, public sector underdevelopment, profiteering and exploitation.”
- Limited educational attainment. The study concluded that while a significant number of Black residents go to college, many never obtain a degree. More than 30 percent of the Black population over the age of 25 has some college experience but no degree.
- Structural joblessness. Researchers concluded that, due primarily to lower levels of educational attainment, many Black residents are “locked” in the low-wage sector. They also struggle to find full-time work because of a shrinking year-round labor market.
- Low wages. Researchers found that while Buffalo’s labor market consists of high- and low-wage sectors, African Americans — largely due to their lower levels of academic achievement — tend to have lower-wage jobs.
- Underdevelopment of neighborhoods. Researchers found a myriad of problems on the East Side, including substandard rental housing, rent gouging, high incidences of housing demolition, poor sidewalks and 7,000 “unkept residential vacant lots” that are depressing housing values.
- Gentrification. The study suggests Black residents living in the Main Street zone designated by city planners as an “educational corridor” are in danger of being displaced by developments involving Canisius College, Sisters Hospital and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
- Poor health. Researchers noted that African Americans often have “preventable diseases, make unjustifiably forced upon unhealthy life choices and often die prematurely.” Sixty percent of Black residents are likely to suffer premature death. African Americans in Erie County have had higher rates of heart disease, stroke and asthma than do Whites. Diabetes is a particular problem.
Lack of community involvement
Researchers suggest the city’s planning and development strategy “marginalized” the East Side. Between 2006 and 2016, the Brown administration invested $179 million on the East Side. One-third of the money went for demolitions — more than any other activity.
The researchers criticized Brown for failing to collaborate with East Side residents or engage in “thoughtful neighborhood planning” and chided his administration for failing to “consistently make strategic investments” in those communities.
“The transformation of the East Side into the zone of demolition and land banking without — and I stress without — planning and development, created havoc on the East Side,” Taylor said.
“In a lot of ways, it was a new form of redlining. Because of the conditions that you were creating, you literally pushed development away from the East Side.”
What needs to be done?
Recommendations in the 1990 report included establishing job training and development programs, providing financial support to low-income homeowners so they could repair and upgrade their homes, and promoting the development of business districts. The blueprint also called for the development of strategies to address social problems, including “outlaw culture and crime.”
In the latest report, researchers outlined a series of steps they want city leaders to take. They called for greater focus on ending “racial residential segregation” that they say serves as the “linchpin” in the system of Black inequality.
The study calls for opening housing markets in Buffalo and across Erie County and for strengthening enforcement of fair housing laws. It also recommends building low-income housing units across “high-income” city neighborhoods and the suburbs.
Researchers recommend working with local colleges and universities to develop a more aggressive strategy to retain African-American students or encourage them to return to school to complete their education.
“We’re getting Black people into college, but we are not getting them out,” Taylor said.
The bulk of the study’s recommendations focus on ways to improve conditions on the East Side. Researchers call for the city to declare the East Side a “Neighborhood, Social and Economic Development Zone” and to designate the Buffalo Center for Health Equity to lead the effort to transform the area.
As an initial task, researchers called for the center to establish an East Side Development Coordinating Committee consisting of residents, homeowners, business owners and representatives from the city, county and private-sector. The study also recommends creation of a Neighborhood Advisory Board consisting of East Side tenants and homeowners that would oversee its activities.
“Our hope is that a core of leaders in Buffalo will pick this study up and take the lead in fighting to redevelop the East Side,” Taylor said. “I want to stress that you can’t do it without the close partnership with the City of Buffalo. It will not happen.”