The American Dream Deferred

"The American Dream Deferred"

Written by Daniel Corbitt, Esq.

“If you take care of it, I’d kick in money.”  With those deviously simple words, Michael Fijal condemned a family’s piece of the American Dream to a smoldering pile of ashes. 

In May of 2011, Fijal paid an accomplice to torch a house located at 179 Mackinaw Street in the Old First Ward.  Fijal paid the arsonist again after the cruel deed was complete. 

Fijal’s support provided what prosecutors would later characterize as the “proverbial match and gasoline.”

Today, the site is a grassy vacant lot.  Six years ago, it represented a tangible piece of a dream realized – a clear path to a better tomorrow for a family who had recently bought the house after arriving from the Congo in search of refuge from persecution and devastation.

At the time, investigators believed that the arson may have been a hate crime.  Fijal would later claim that the conspirators had been concerned about the new owners’ plans for an apartment located in the house, and decided arson was the best way to address their fears of potential “dirtbag” tenants at 179 Mackinaw.

It’s telling that Fijal and his fellow criminals assumed that the tenants would be “dirtbags.” There are many rental properties in the Old First Ward, some of which are owned by slumlords who fail to maintain their properties and rent to individuals who engage in illicit activities.  Michael Fijal had lived in that neighborhood for decades, but had never been compelled to bankroll an arson-for-hire scheme to destroy any of those properties.  

Despite Fijal’s denials that his crime was motivated by racial hatred or xenophobia, he and his co-conspirators targeted a black family from the Congo and no one else.  Moreover, Fijal had never spoken a single word to his victims.  The unprovoked, anonymous aspect of this crime would continue to terrorize its victims many years after the fire’s smoke had cleared.  They lived in fear of the possibility that the faceless perpetrators would again strike from the shadows, and this time, kill them all.

During his sentencing six years later, Fijal’s defense attorney stated that his client wished he could shake his victims’ hands and apologize.  Perhaps if he had shaken their hands six years ago and welcomed them to the neighborhood, this tragedy would never have happened.  Fijal may have come to know a truly remarkable family, learning their plans for the property and appreciating their inspirational story in the process. 

Through strength and resolve these New Americans had escaped the unimaginable horrors of war and genocide to come to our city in search of opportunity.  The family had seized this opportunity, working multiple low-paying jobs while saving and scraping together enough money to buy a little house in the Old First Ward.  It was a piece of the American Dream, a place of safety and sanctuary as well as a tangible pathway to a promise of a better tomorrow. 

After buying the house in March of 2011 they immediately got to work – investing their time and money to fix it up into a proper home. The family planned to live in one unit and rent out the other, the income from which would help pay their children’s college tuition.  Clearly, these were not slumlords. 

Fijal and his co-conspirators may have realized that had they bothered to notice anything but the color of the family’s skin.

Over six years have passed since the arson forced the family to once again seek refuge.  Six long years of delayed justice, recurring frustration, and relived trauma.  Despite extraordinary efforts by the FBI, including a $10,000 reward and a billboard campaign, no one has ever come forward to cooperate and provide information.  Fijal himself never identified his co-conspirators, despite being arrested and pleading guilty to the crime in 2012.  Ultimately, the prosecutors never charged Fijal with a hate crime.  As part of his plea agreement, Fijal faced a maximum of 33 months in prison.  To this date, no other arrests have been made, and the case has gone cold.  

Fijal was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and his sentencing was postponed dozens of times as he requested adjournments to seek medical treatment.  U.S. District Judge

Richard Arcara granted those requests, even against the objections of the prosecutor, who had requested that sentencing move forward to provide some measure of closure to the victims.

Finally, on August 9th, 2017, the adjournments came to an end and Fijal stood before Judge Arcara to receive his sentence.  The judge read aloud from letters of support from Fijal’s family and friends, over 50 of which he had received, that praised the confessed criminal for his dedication to his community and his willingness to lend a helping hand to those in need.  In a truly bizarre moment, Fijal’s defense attorney even suggested that his client was just a poor patsy who had been caught up in this dastardly plot out of his innate desire to help others. 

The judge was clearly persuaded by these letters of support, several of which vehemently denied that Fijal was a racist.  Incredibly, the writer of one of these letters identified himself as a member of the Buffalo Fire Department, which is truly shocking when considering not only the nature of the crime, but also that a Buffalo firefighter had been injured responding to the blaze.

In the end, Judge Arcara sentenced Fijal to three years of supervised release instead of imprisonment.  He was also ordered to pay $92,506.05 in restitution:  $33,235 to the City of Buffalo for demolishing and removing the charred remains of 179 Mackinaw; $59,271.05 to reimburse insurance companies for the damage done to neighboring houses; and only $26,806 to the family whose home he helped destroy.

After six long years of fear, frustration, and trauma, one part of this tragic story has come to an end.  Another will soon begin. 

HOME will continue to fight for justice for the victims of this crime in a pending civil proceeding.  Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, this story will never have a happy ending.  A crime as senseless and corrosive as what occurred in May of 2011 only leaves grief and destruction in its wake. 

HOME’s mission of outreach and education is more critical than ever if we are to break the cycle of fear and hate that fuel these types of vicious, senseless acts, and prevent them from occurring in the future.  We need to tear down the walls between us, sometimes with something as simple as a hello and a handshake.  Had that happened here, perhaps the First Ward would have been strengthened by a hardworking family that only wanted to invest in the neighborhood and pursue a little piece of happiness in their new homeland.  Instead, there is just another vacant grassy lot. 



Poverty's Dangerous Impact on Health

"Poverty's Dangerous Impact on Health"

Written by Christopher Allaire

The neighborhoods in which we live have profound and lasting effects on our health and well-being.  Some of these effects can be easily observed and obvious such as exposure to pollution and environmental toxins.  Others are more subtle and harder to identify, such as the impact on one’s mental health from living in a violent neighborhood.  Scientists, however, are beginning to understand the complex relationship between poverty, the places that we live, and individual health outcomes.  This article will outline the three major neighborhood environments that affect health outcomes and explain how these environments are relevant to our community in Buffalo and Western New York.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission on Health, there are three, often overlapping, environments that can promote health or put it in jeopardy—the physical environment, the service environment, and the social environment.   The physical environment is the built and natural world in a neighborhood.  This includes the buildings, streets, air, water, and soil in a particular neighborhood.  The physical environment can affect health through exposure to toxins such as lead paint in homes and air pollution from high traffic density.  In Buffalo, because of the legacy of historic segregation which has concentrated poverty and people of color in particular patterns throughout the city, Black and other non-white residents are exposed to higher levels of exposure from the physical environment.  According to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Good, Black Buffalonians had the highest rates of exposure to air pollution in the city and higher levels of exposure than 34 percent of the census tracts in the entire United States.  

The service environment in neighborhoods refers to public services that are available to individuals such as access to grocery stores, public schools, employment opportunities, and public transit.  Ready access to full-service supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods can increase health and help offset higher levels of obesity associated with high concentrations of fast food restaurants.  A recent study conducted by the Health Policy Institute found that African Americans were “five times less likely than whites to live in census tracts with supermarkets, and are more likely to live in communities with a high percentage of fast-food outlets, liquor stores, and convenience stores.”  The Partnership for the Public Good found that the majority of Buffalo’s food deserts to be “clustered in the eastern part of the city-- in neighborhoods where at least three in four residents are people of color.”  This shocking statistic again highlights the legacy of historic segregation, which has deepened since the 1960s and has concentrated poverty in our community.  

The final and often overlooked component of a neighborhood that affects individual health is the social environment.  The social environment is the relationship networks and mutual feelings of connectedness that develop in a neighborhood.  Although less easy to identify than the positive or negative effects of the service or physical environments, the social environment has important health-related outcomes for individuals.  For example, the National Institute for Justice, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, conducted a landmark study in Chicago to determine the effects of strong neighborhood communities on health and violence.  The study found that strong neighborhood cohesion and social networks are “linked with decreased violence and weakened the relationship between violence and a neighborhood’s social composition….strong neighborhood networks can collectively lessen the effects of concentrated poverty.”  In this way, closely knit neighborhoods with mutual feelings of connectedness between residents result in healthier neighborhoods with fewer incidences of violence and less exposure to traumatic crime for young children.

It is important to understand the interconnectedness of the environment, poverty, and health in our neighborhoods in order to make better policy decisions for the people of Western New York.  By fighting segregation and the concentration of poverty in our community, Western New Yorkers can ameliorate the worst negative health consequences of the neighborhood environment and substitute them for the positive health benefits derived from mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods.  As Western New Yorkers, we should all strive to ensure that everyone has the ability to obtain optimal personal health through the reversal of decades of segregation and discriminatory housing in our community.       



Year in Review: 2015 Fair Housing Trends

Year in Review: 2015 Fair Housing Trends

Written by Kibrett Facey

Before beginning a discussion about the fair housing trends of 2015, it is important to note that the stride towards equity and justice in fair housing was strengthened with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the use of disparate impact in fair housing claims as well as the enactment of HUD’s regulation to exhume and implement the “affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH) provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. For those unfamiliar, the concept of “disparate impact” addresses the disproportionate, negative impact that certain policies have on those who belong to protected classes. Both disparate impact and AFFH aimed to improve fair housing regulation while fostering healthy communities that are inclusive and full of opportunity. According to the 2016 Fair Housing Trends report by the National Fair Housing Alliance, “They reinforce existing tools that can address the legacy of segregation and concentrated poverty that is so evident from the hate crimes and uprisings that have occurred in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston, and Orlando.” Without these two critical tools, it is possible that diversity and equity in communities around the country will reach a plateau. Housing discrimination still exists despite them, but without them, it would be even more prevalent.

Every year, the National Fair Housing Alliance garners data from nonprofit fair housing organizations and government agencies across the United States. With this data, they are able to piece together a report that shows fair housing enforcement activity. This report illustrates many things, one of those being the finding that private fair housing agencies take on the bulk of housing discrimination claims nationally.  In 2015, private fair housing enforcement agencies investigated upwards of 70 percent of fair housing cases. This is twice as much as all other agencies. It is also a testament to the fact that the existence of private fair housing enforcement agencies is non-negotiable in a society that values equity and opportunity. There are many housing discrimination cases that are reported annually, but in no way does this mean that it is reflective of the discrimination that persists in this nation. Housing discrimination often goes undetected and underreported for a number of reasons including fear of retaliation and fear of inaction on the behalf of the law. While these instances of underreporting may exist, the number of cases received is still one that is alarming.

According to the 2016 Fair Housing Trends Report, there were 27,944 reported complaints in 2015. Over 27,000 people in our nation felt that they were being discriminated against almost 50 years after a law was put in place to eradicate unfair housing practices. Looking deeper into the data, it shows that the three protected classes that have experienced housing discrimination the most are: (1) Disability, (2) Race, and (3) Familial Status. Simply put, those with disabilities or those with children have been discriminated against in high volumes along with those discriminated against on the basis of their race. Housing discrimination against persons with disabilities accounted for 55.1 percent (15,332)  of total discrimination complaints filed while 19.9 percent (5,563) were on the basis of race and 10.3 percent (2,876) accounted for the discrimination that occurred on the basis of familial status. As far as the other protected classes go, national origin complaints made up 9.5 percent of total complains while sex-based discrimination trailed behind with 6.8 percent. The most infrequent bases of discrimination were color and religion with percentages as low as 1 percent and complaints in the low hundreds. There were also 2,147 discrimination complains that were listed in the “other” category. These included many of the protected classes of states and municipalities such as source of income discrimination, age discrimination, and sexual orientation discrimination.

The numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t provide us with the entire picture. These statistics are a mere snapshot of the housing discrimination that occurs in the United States. Unfortunately, there are many more cases that get swept under the rug, but this gives us even more reason to unify and fight housing discrimination. Many have the tainted perception that having a tough stance on fair housing law will be nothing short of a detriment to them. They assume that initiatives striving for equity will strip them of their rights and alter the way that they live their lives. It is time for America to realize that opportunity and equity betters the lives of every person in this country. Adequate housing is the wellspring of an individual’s success, and it is our job to ensure that it is obtainable.

Inclusionary Zoning: The Queen City's Cure?

Inclusionary Zoning: The Queen City's Cure?

Written by Kibrett Facey

The city of Buffalo has undergone a number of transformations in hopes of making it the bustling city that it once was years ago. While these changes lend to a thriving city, there is a population of the Queen City that has been neglected.  Local rent and housing prices are skyrocketing as poverty in the area continues to barrage Buffalonians attempting to make ends meet. New housing is built but typically these units boast a luxurious price that is much too high for Buffalonians of lower incomes to afford. Gentrification and displacement are running rampant as urban revitalization serves more privileged society members.

So, how do we combat this? The fight begins with inclusionary zoning--a plausible method to ensure that there is steady creation of affordable housing to accompany new developments. Under inclusionary zoning policies, a small percentage of units in any new, city-approved market-rate development must be affordable for low-to-moderate income families. These affordable units also must be comparable to the other units in type, quality, and access to amenities. Simply put, affordable units should not pale in comparison to their market-rate counterparts.

In Buffalo, a cohort of forward-thinking organizations has been pushing forth potential inclusionary zoning policies. This cohort, known as The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition, includes members of the Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH Buffalo, Heart of the City Neighborhoods, LISC Buffalo, HOME, and Open Buffalo. In a city that is experiencing many disparities and increased socio-economic segregation, this coalition is pushing inclusionary zoning in hopes of propelling economic integration.

In the Inclusionary Zoning report recently prepared by The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition, there is a discussion about current national trends and the toll that they have taken in the Queen City. There has been a roaring preference for cities as opposed to suburbs by residents, thus onsetting flurries of new investments. Public spending done in areas such as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, downtown Buffalo, and the waterfront has given way to spurts of new developments and attractions. But like all new, shiny toys, there is a cost that must be paid. The price that Buffalo has begun to pay comes in the form of shortages of affordable housing and augmenting gentrification and displacement.

Did you know that Buffalo has experienced the seventh largest  increase in rental affordability burden? Families are now spending 28.4 percent of their incomes on rent. In a household with an income of $50,000, that means that an additional $1,400 will be tacked onto rent annually. There is also data that shows that there has been an increase of 48 percent in the Fair Market Rent.

Given the especially high poverty rates in the city, Buffalonians experience unique challenges. The median household income in Buffalo is $21,815. If we measure affordability as the ability to use 30% of one’s income to pay rent, then we are looking at $545 in rent per month. In our city, this is unrealistic and less than ideal. More than half of Buffalo’s rental housing is priced at $600 or more. The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition reported that 61 percent of renters have an income of less than $35,000 with approximately 78 percent of them spending more than 30% of their income on rent. It seems that in Buffalo, the only method of survival is living beyond your means.

This is a detriment that is far from being mitigated by the construction of new apartments. Two developments that are representative of the non-inclusionary pricing of newer apartments are units at Hydraulic Lofts on 500 Seneca and 301 Ohio Street Apartments. Two bedroom units at Hydraulic Lofts will cost you anywhere in between a whopping $1,075 to $2,000. Similarly, a two bedroom apartment at 301 Ohio Street Apartments will do damage upwards of $2,495. While there are cheaper units that exist, they are often of lower quality and put renters at risk of things such as caved in roofs and mold. Quality has become something that renters must push aside to make their monthly payments. These unaffordable, new developments also ensure that renters are concentrated in racially segregated, high poverty neighborhoods.

To remedy these issues of unaffordability and segregation, The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition is advocating for a policy that requires developers of ten or more units to reserve 30 percent of units for people with an income falling below 60 percent of the City’s median income. This policy could also allow great incentives for developers such as permits that would allow developers to build at a higher density as well as quicker processes in acquiring necessary permits. Similar programs have had great success in major cities such as Chicago, Illinois and Boston, Massachusetts.

The resurgence of Buffalo will only truly be successful if it is inclusive. All citizens of Buffalo, despite income level, deserve the opportunity to live in sustainable neighborhoods for affordable prices. With the stipulations put forth in the Inclusionary Report, the future of the Queen City could be brighter than anyone could have ever envisaged.