February 20, 2023 – BUFFALO NEWS
By Janey Gramza
Stephanie Simeon’s wheelhouse is affordable housing, so when she starts talking about food insecurity in Buffalo’s low-income areas, she has often been met with confused looks and a “stay in your lane” mentality.
But that has changed since the hate-motivated mass shooting at the Jefferson Avenue Tops supermarket that killed 10 Black East Buffalo residents and closed the community’s only supermarket for two months last year.
Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, said the massacre opened people’s eyes to the reality that safe, affordable housing and access to healthy food must be linked as Buffalo moves to improve the predominantly Black and low-income area targeted by the racist shooter.
“The East Side of Buffalo represents half of Buffalo, with 100,000 residents,” Simeon said. “Why should they have one grocery store? The May 14 massacre highlighted a lot of issues and illnesses of our society. Affordable housing can and should address challenges for food insecurity.”
Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a Buffalo nonprofit devoted to affordable housing solutions, has been working on “asset-based development” and block-by-block improvement of city neighborhoods since 2016. Simeon said that approach is a must for planners seeking to address food insecurity in East Buffalo.
After the massacre, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $50 million in aid for East Buffalo, including $3 million to renovate a building to house the African Heritage Food Co-op in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood and $34 million for housing, $10 million of that for East Side home repairs.
In her 2023 State of the State address, Hochul also pledged to address a statewide housing shortage that she said is partly responsible for more than half of New York renters and a third of mortgage holders paying more than 30% of their incomes for housing.
Hochul pledged to build 800,000 units of new housing across the state and provide localities “substantial new funding for infrastructure like schools, roads and sewers needed to support growing communities.”
Simeon said that in places like East Buffalo, supermarkets, community gardens and farm market sites also need to be part of the infrastructure, as do sidewalks, public transit and affordable health care.
Simeon noted the streets around the Tops on Jefferson have a high concentration of vacant lots, boarded-up houses, broken or no sidewalks – and poverty, drugs and crime.
“People are a reflection of their environment,” Simeon said. “People need healthy housing, safe housing and quality neighborhoods with amenities like nearby transit and food markets.”
Simeon, who earned her undergraduate degree and a master’s in architecture and planning from the University at Buffalo, has led Heart of the City Neighborhoods since 2007.
For most of a decade it focused on Buffalo’s lower West Side, where Heart of the City funneled state, federal and charitable grants to rehabilitate vacant homes and build multifamily housing to fill in the neighborhood around the Tops on Niagara Street, Simeon said.
“We filled in vacant lots so they didn’t look like missing teeth, and worked block by block for a long time,” she said. “And when the neighborhood started to right itself, then private investment and banks started coming in as well.”
Heart of the City has also been heavily involved in helping homeowners address ailments that plague old housing stock, including lead paint and dust, drafty infrastructure and mold, all of which cause human ailments, especially to children living there.
“We know that the more stable housing kids have, the higher their educational achievements,” Simeon said.
“Children who are lead poisoned or even have low levels of lead in their blood have a hard time with emotional management and can become learning disabled. Children who are missing school because of asthma caused by drafty housing may be unable to go beyond high school because of it. People without access to healthy food have lower life expectancies. This is an environmental concern.”
In recent years, starting in about 2016, Heart of the City has been applying its development methods on the East Side through faith-based organizations “that already have the trust, love and care of their community,” she said.
The group has worked with Mt. Aaron Missionary Baptist Church on Genesee Street, Macedonia Missionary Baptist on East North Street, Mt. Olive Baptist on East Delavan Avenue and others to obtain grants to fill in vacant lots with single-family homes and affordable apartments.
It currently has plans to build two single-family homes on Purdy Street and seven on Grey Street as well as assisting Mt. Olive and People Inc. with a planned senior housing complex in the Delavan-Grider neighborhood, Simeon said.
Heart of the City plans to get more involved in lobbying for more grocery stores, supermarkets and farm market sites as it works to “add density” to areas considered “high vacancy” by such businesses.
She thinks grocers will be more receptive if state and local government follow through on investing in East Buffalo – including planting shade trees, fixing sidewalks, adding street lights and providing affordable internet connectivity.
“I think people are finally listening, but why did it have to wait for a massacre to happen for people to say, ‘Whoa, this is a problem?’” Simeon said. “These are all things we could have done just by being good neighbors.”