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A New Plan Could Worsen the Housing Crisis for Black Families Near Syracuse’s I-81

The state Department of Transportation must step in to make sure residents aren't displaced.

ReZone I-81
By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center & Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

Syracuse is home to some of the highest rates of segregation and concentrated poverty in the nation. Yet the city’s recently passed zoning plan – which will determine where residential and commercial buildings can be constructed – fails to provide any protections for Syracuse’s Black low-income communities living near the I-81 viaduct. Under the plan, which is called ReZone, there are no requirements for affordable housing or for making sure residents living near the viaduct aren’t priced out of their homes. ReZone doubles down on the racist history of zoning laws that have long plagued Syracuse.

Residents living near the viaduct are worried history is about to repeat itself. More than 50 years ago, the construction of I-81 destroyed the Black working-class community known as the 15th Ward, displacing thousands of residents.

Changes Don’t Go Far Enough

For three years, the NYCLU has been in conversation with the Black residents living close to the viaduct. From the very beginning, those we talked to said that any new development in Syracuse must come with guarantees of quality affordable housing. Many worried without these protections new development could increase the cost of rent, price them out of their neighborhood, and rip them away from their community. Residents also told us they want investments in their community that bring new, good paying-jobs and cultural opportunities to their neighborhoods, including a community land trust.

Since 2019, we were in regular contact with city officials, submitted both written and oral testimony identifying our concerns with ReZone and explained why the plan is detrimental to residents living adjacent to the viaduct. City officials assured us that they heard our concerns and that they would be reflected in the final plan.

The NYCLU submitted recommendations, once in 2020 and again in 2023. As a result, some minor changes were made to the plan, including creating an incentive for developers to make 10  percent of units in buildings with 20 units or more affordable. But developers could simply opt out of this incentive program. City officials also slightly lowered the density of development allowed in the area, but the plan still fails to provide any affordable housing requirements. Simply put, the changes did not go far enough.

Legislators held just one public meeting to discuss ReZone. At the meeting, residents expressed the same concerns they had voiced to us, namely that they had serious worries ReZone failed to address the affordable housing crisis, and that it would be especially harmful to people living near the viaduct.

Ultimately, these concerns were ignored. In June, the city’s Common Council passed ReZone unanimously and it was signed into law by Mayor Ben Walsh days later.

With ReZone now on the books, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) must step in to ensure the residents in the shadow of the viaduct are not displaced by the massive development the zoning laws will prompt. If it doesn’t, the limited income, working class, and largely Black Syracuse residents will be at grave risk of losing access to affordable housing and even losing their homes.

I-81 and the 15th Ward

Those who stayed in the area after I-81 was constructed reconstituted their neighborhood along the viaduct. Residents were forced to contend with a lack of economic opportunities and a scarcity of quality affordable housing. But the community has remained strong, closely-connected, and vibrant, despite being mostly neglected by government policymakers over the last half century.

Now the I-81 viaduct is crumbling and about to be torn down and replaced by a walkable “community grid.” This effort is the most impactful and massive infrastructure project the city has seen in over five decades.

Among other impacts, the project will open up approximately 24 acres of developable land that was previously unusable. Formerly zoned as a residential district, ReZone calls for the area adjacent to the viaduct to become a commercial, mixed use zoning, with 75,000 square foot requirements. This is likely to create soaring real estate and rental prices, making the community no longer affordable for the current residents.

For decades, residents in the shadow of the viaduct have endured scarce job opportunities, inadequate education options, and toxic fumes from a nearby highway. Now they could be kicked out of the community they’ve worked so hard to maintain. Just like the families who had to leave when I-81 was first constructed, present-day residents – many of whom are renters – could be priced out of their neighborhood. All the while, real estate developers are poised to feast on high rents and skyrocketing property values.

Development Without Displacement

Fortunately, there is a way to address the looming displacement of residents and to bring much needed resources to the community adjacent to the viaduct. The NYSDOT currently owns the land that will become developable once the viaduct is torn down. The Department is legally required to consider the risk of displacement that could result from future land use. The NYSDOT must use its authority to ensure the newly developable land is dispersed equitably, fairly, and in a way that benefits the residents who have carried the burden of living near the viaduct.

Any distribution of the land must include a careful analysis of the parcels adjacent to the viaduct, in collaboration with neighborhood residents and key stakeholders. To this end, the NYSDOT must allocate at least a portion of the newly developable land into a community land trust, which will help keep homes affordable. Community land trusts are run by non-profit organizations with a board that includes community members. When someone buys a home that sits on a community land trust, they are only buying the home, not the land it sits on. This means the home is less expensive, making home ownership possible for working-class people. This also means that when the value of the land increases, the increased value stays where it belongs – in the community.

The NYSDOT should only disperse the land directly to developers that will commit to following several requirements, including strong affordable housing requirements and the creation of a resident-driven advisory group. And, as part of their submission, developers must make clear how their proposal supports the community’s goal of development without displacement.

The Community Must Benefit

There is no inherent reason for residents living in the shadow of the viaduct to dread rezoning plans or new development. When effectively managed and incentivized, new development can bring not just more affordable housing, but other benefits as well.

Along these lines, the Department of Transportation should prioritize development plans that call for adding educational, cultural, arts, entertainment, and performance spaces to the community, and bring well-paying job opportunities to people living in what will be the new 15th Ward.

Across the country, the list of rezoning plans that result in gentrification, displacement, and worse segregation is quite long. But NYSDOT could show the nation how to do it correctly. Getting this project right offers a chance to correct historic wrongs while bringing affordable homes and other opportunities to a community neglected by those in power for more than 50 years.

The city has again failed those living near the viaduct. Now it’s time for NYSDOT to prevent history from repeating itself.

You can tell the NYSDOT to TAKE ACTION NOW!

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