By VICKY SANTOS
Published April 3, 2023
Climate change, race, poverty and public policies were among the key issues that were addressed during a recent panel discussion surrounding the housing crisis in Buffalo.
Hosted by UB’s Gender Institute, “Social Reproduction and the Crisis of Housing in Buffalo,” featured panelists Rahwa Ghirmatzion, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and India Walton.
Ghirmatzion, former executive director of Buffalo’s People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), a West Side activist and housing advocacy organization, said one of the most critical issues affecting housing everywhere is climate change.
“I would argue that we have a couple of existential crises globally right now,” Ghirmatzion said, “climate change being the biggest one that is impacting all of us. So, everything that we do has to be at the intersections of the climate justice and whatever else, including housing. And housing is a human right.”
Ghirmatzion said there’s a silver lining when it comes to addressing climate change and sustainable, yet affordable, housing in Buffalo: a collaboration between PUSH Buffalo and UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. The Community Climate Leadership Program will train “citizen architects” who will take on a greater advocacy role on behalf of their communities. Nicholas Rajkovich, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, discussed the PUSH partnership in the latest episode of UB’s Driven to Discover podcast.
In addition to incorporating sustainable designs, the collaborative workforce training program will create pathways to jobs that pay a living wage for unemployed and underemployed individuals in Buffalo.
“We just graduated 13 people last semester and 15 are on track to graduate this semester. And these are students who are from all over the world, including the city of Buffalo. That means we are teaching young people how to design homes and communities for the sake of our planet, and not design for design’s sake,” Ghirmatzion said.
The project leverages PUSH Buffalo’s efforts to expand local hiring opportunities and advance economic and climate justice with UB faculty members’ knowledge and expertise in how to adapt the built environment to extreme weather and climate change.
“Students graduating from this program are going to create all these incredible amenities using renewable energy and achieve net zero energy performance,” Ghirmatzion said.
The panel also discussed issues of race, poverty, federal funding and historical policies as factors regarding the city’s current housing crisis.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who is originally from Buffalo, said the city isn’t alone in grappling with housing issues.
“There are some general things that I think are happening across the country that also matter here. One of them is dramatic increases in rent as landlords and developers try to make up for years of very low rent in Buffalo. The pace of rent is far outpacing income, wages and salaries,” said Taylor, who is the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and a UB alum. Taylor is a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, and author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership” (2019), a semi-finalist for a National Book Award and a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
According to the panel, Buffalo has the oldest housing stock in the country, which means many of the homes are no longer up to code or have fallen into disrepair over the years. Before the recent rise in the housing market, that older property was purchased at a lower price and drew outside investors.
“We have had huge development here over the last 10 years and that’s creating an incredible amount of gentrification in our communities, and a huge amount of displacement of working class and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) folks,” Ghirmatzion said.
Walton, a 2023 Buffalo Common Council (Masten District) candidate, director of Roots Action Buffalo/Roots Action Civic Engagement, former executive director of Fruit Belt Community Land Trust and the Democratic candidate in Buffalo’s 2021 mayoral race, said limiting outside investors would be a big step toward making housing affordable.
“We need to prioritize locals. We need to prioritize people who are deeply invested in this community,” Walton said. “To prioritize frontline communities. We need to prioritize nonprofit affordable housing developers, who are doing this work and have been doing it.”
For Taylor, rent control and partnering with other government entities are also critical aspects of addressing the housing crisis locally.
“Working with the federal government to open up greater access to the tools that the federal government possesses is necessary. And we have to understand that we can’t fix housing in a vacuum,” Taylor said.
“We can’t just develop a series of public policies to implement because you can’t fix housing without addressing issues of poverty. You can’t fix housing without addressing issues of underemployment and unemployment. But this is part of a matrix of inequality racism and discrimination in cities across the country.”
The panel was moderated by Carrie Tirado Bramen, director of the Gender Institute and professor of English. The session is available on YouTube.
"We have the ideas; we have the policies. Now we need the political will to make it happen,” Bramen said.
The conference was made possible with funding from the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy in the School of Law, and College of Arts and Sciences co-sponsors the departments of Philosophy, English, History and Arts Management.