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NYCLU and Community Members Rally to Protect Black Syracuse Residents From Displacement After ReZone Passage

SYRACUSE – The New York Civil Liberties Union and community partners held a rally today to demand state intervention to protect Black residents from displacement, following the passage of ReZone. The NYCLU sent a comprehensive public comment to the New York State Department of Transporation (NYSDOT) today, urging the department to use its legal authority to ensure the land made available after the demolition of the I-81 viaduct is dispersed fairly, equitably, and in a way that benefits the residents who have lived near the viaduct.

“Today’s rally has sent a strong message to the City of Syracuse: by passing ReZone, it failed to show any indication they plan to distribute the newly developable land in an equitable way,” said Lanessa Chaplin, director of the NYCLU’s Racial Justice Center. “The memo we sent NYSDOT today makes crystal clear that NYSDOT has the legal authority to meet the needs of the communities most impacted and advance measures to prevent displacement, as well as preserve the character of the neighborhood. They must use that authority immediately to prevent history from repeating itself.”

The construction of the I-81 viaduct more than 50 years ago devastated a community of working-class Black residents known as the 15th Ward and forced thousands of residents to flee. Those who stayed reconstituted their neighborhood along the viaduct, while suffering the fallout from the construction, including scarce job opportunities, lack of affordable quality housing, and pollution. In 2019, the NYSDOT decided to remove the viaduct and replace it with a community grid, opening up approximately 24 acres of developable land that was previously unusable. On June 23, 2023, despite the concerns raised by thousands of residents, Syracuse lawmakers passed ReZone, a revision of the city’s zoning ordinance. The plan prioritizes commercial and mixed-use development over affordable housing in the area near the viaduct.

“Syracuse has some of the highest rates of segregation and concentrated poverty in the nation. Yet ReZone fails to provide any protections against displacement for low-income Black residents, while doubling down on its support for major developers,” said Victoria Coit, senior organizer at the NYCLU. “Just like the families who had to leave when I-81 was first constructed, present-day residents could be priced out of their neighborhood, while real estate developers are likely to feast on high rents and skyrocketing property values. As we are calling for the NYSDOT to right this wrong, we will continue to stand firm with directly impacted community members to ensure their voices are heard.”

Last week, Syracuse lawmakers formally requested that New York state return the land made available after the demolition of the viaduct to the City of Syracuse. The NYCLU opposes this request, and instead urges the NYSDOT to retain control of the land and disperse it fairly and equitably. NYSDOT must:

  • Require a minimum of two-thirds of all housing units be income-restricted affordable housing, with one-third targeting low- and moderate- income households and one-third targeting middle-income households.
  • Allocate at least a portion of the newly developable land into a community land trust.
  • Disperse the land directly to developers that will commit to community-centered requirements, including strong affordable housing requirements and the creation of a resident-driven advisory group.
  • Ensure developers present a narrative explaining how their proposals support the community’s goal of development without displacement.
  • Prioritize development plans that call for adding educational, cultural, arts, entertainment, and performance spaces to the community.

“Within the city of Syracuse, the need for accessible housing options resonates deeply, as it mirrors our collective commitment to fostering a thriving community,” said Palmer Harvey, organizer with Syracuse Tenants Union. “The fight for the 15th ward encapsulates our organization’s unwavering dedication to empowering every individual with the fundamental right to secure affordable shelter. As we stand united, advocating for a better future, let us remember that affordable housing is not just a necessity; it is the cornerstone upon which vibrant cities and inclusive societies are built.”

“When I-81 was placed in our community, it destroyed a thriving Black neighborhood. This one action has caused decades of health despair, poverty and poor housing,” said Oceanna Fair, Southside branch leader with Families for Lead Freedom Now. “With the removal of the viaduct, returning the land to the community and increasing affordable housing will be the first steps towards restorative justice for a community that has suffered so much harm from this highway.”

“Affordable housing is extremely important for our members, many of them are low wages earners, and live in single parent households. Without affordable housing, many of them would be struggling to pay their rent on a monthly basis,” said Kevin Lockhart, vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East for Central New York, Syracuse Region.

“The Urban Jobs Task Force of Syracuse knows that affordable housing, along with good jobs, is the answer to Syracuse’s concentrated poverty. The City must address the housing crisis to create equitable neighborhoods for its residents,” said Urban Jobs Task Force’s Aggie Lane.

The NYCLU has been deeply involved in the I-81 project from its inception. This includes authoring a comprehensive report on the multi-generational impact of the original I-81 build and filing an amicus brief challenging a lawsuit to halt the demolition of a portion of the viaduct. During the public participation process, the NYCLU organized rallies and community meetings, submitted comments and collected over 5,000 public comments from community members. The organization also engaged key stakeholders throughout the process, including the NYSDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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