By Mike Powell
People walking down Grant and the neighborhoods of the now bustling West Side will notice the many different faces, languages, cultures, and new businesses that now populate the area. The huge influx of refugees that have come to call the city their home have helped immensely with this. According to a report by the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), Erie County resettled over 9,500 refugees between 2003 to 2014. Just as recently as last year, based off data released by the New York Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, Erie County alone resettled 1,800 refugees; that’s 35% of the total for New York State.
When a person living in Syria, from where Erie County received 35% of refugees last year, makes the choice to leave their home country, either due to war, persecution because of their politics, race, or religion, they can expect to be screened by 5 different U.S. agencies, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Throughout this process, applicants’ records are constantly referenced against new and incoming data. After this point, they are cleared to enter the United States and start their new life. Because of the current administration’s plan to cut funding and assistance for the country’s resettlement program, it was reported by the Buffalo News that Buffalo’s resettlement agencies expect to resettle only half of the number of refugees they were originally expecting. This is an issue that impacts Buffalo directly.
The men and women getting off that plane from places like Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Iraq, have a daunting task ahead of them, as they are leaving the only home they’ve ever known where a good portion of their friends and family live, to then land in a place they’ve never been to, where there’s a sizable language barrier for some. But these people have seen and been through intense situations and have had to persevere through great hardship. The people I’ve met as a volunteer are simply amazing, so it’s no wonder then that the West Side has seen the resurgence it has with more and more shops opening up; new restaurants, businesses, community organizations, markets, and boutiques.
That growth is starting to see a downturn. There’s the earlier mentioned cuts in resettlement funding, as well as an increase in housing costs in the area. An article published by the Washington Post found that over the last decade, housing costs on the West Side have grown by roughly 90%. An October, 2016 West Side demographic study by PPG found poverty rates as high as 50-60% in some areas of the Waterfront section. People who have lived there for years are struggling to find affordable housing. This is also affecting the various resettlement agencies who are no longer able to locate places for new refugees to stay. As a volunteer, I get to work directly to ensure that new residents to the city have the best chance available to them to make their transitional period as smooth as can be. That’s getting appreciably difficult. As housing costs increase, the quality of the living spaces available get, well, not very good. Not only that, but people are having to live in areas that don’t have an especially strong network or many community organizations set up. For a newly arrived Syrian for example, there’s a large group of Syrians and Arabic speakers who can help them get acclimated to their new life. As it’s planned for refugees to start living in Niagara Falls, none of those resources are really there.
That begs the question then, as to why you should care where people are living, or how much their housing costs. Census data for 2016 shows that Erie County has been losing residents (-0.2 percent from 2015). The population has been kept afloat due to incoming refugees, considering the net negative the region would see without them. According to census data collected by PPG, Buffalo, “…ranked last of 48 major metro areas in gaining immigrants…however saw a 33% rise in foreign born population, growing from 4.4% of the total population in 2000 to 6.0% in 2010.” This population influx has helped economically bolster the West Side, helped fill the staggering amount of vacant houses that are found throughout the city (the East Side of Buffalo and Niagara Falls region still lead the entire WNY region in vacant homes however), as well as impact the awarding of various state housing grants. It’s certainly a complicated issue, but one thing is for certain, the less people living in a city, the less of a city it becomes.