When Boston’s Planning & Development Agency proposed a zoning change that would encourage high-end residential development in the Jamaica Plains neighborhood, community activists turned out to oppose it. When a property developer built luxury apartments in an abandoned factory on Syracuse’s impoverished Westside, the Post-Standard endorsed the project as a sign of the neighborhood’s revival.
It’s not hard to account for the difference between these two responses. In Boston, two things are true: (1) large numbers of affluent people are moving into the city center and driving up demand for city housing, and (2) many people who already live in the city rent their housing. New demand for city housing creates wealth by increasing the value of existing real estate. In a rent-heavy market, this new wealth flows to landlords and not to renters. New demand for city housing also increases the price of any given housing unit. In a rent-heavy market, rising rents push out long-term tenants and bring in affluent newcomers. New demand for city housing enriches landlords and empowers newcomers at the expense of the existing community. The Jamaica Plains zoning change is both an expression and a catalyst of this transfer of political and economic power.
Syracuse, on the other hand, is so starved for visible signs of economic activity, that almost any building project for any purpose anywhere seems like a good thing. Rental units make up more than 60% of the housing in Syracuse, but the City is so poor and its real estate market so weak that it’s hard to imagine that any new building could pose a real threat to the existing community.
It’s only a matter of time, though, until demand for luxury housing inflates Syracuse’s real estate values. Every metropolitan area in the United States contains a large and growing number of people who want to live in ‘the city.’ So long as a city has space where property developers can build apartments reminiscent in some way of Manhattan (exposed brick, city views, open floor plans, etc), that city will support a luxury housing market. Syracuse has this space, and property developers are already building these kinds of apartments.
When real estate prices do, inevitably, rise, the people who own Syracuse’s real estate will control that new wealth, and they will determine who can live where. Before a flood of affluent people move into Syracuse and drive up demand, the existing community must protect its political and economic power by taking ownership of its housing.
Real estate is expensive, and it’s taken a whole complex of government programs and private interests to make home ownership a reality for so many Americans. For a variety of reasons, these traditional means of buying a home are often unavailable to people in Syracuse. In response, local organizations and residents have developed three proven alternatives to the traditional home-buying complex: non-profit lending, the Land Bank, and cooperative ownership.
Traditional banks won’t lend in Syracuse because they can’t guarantee that the land will increase in value, and because so many potential borrowers are poor. Non-profit lenders like Home HeadQuarters can fill this gap because their primary goal is to get people into homes–not to profit from the transaction. Non-profit lenders are doubly effective when they partner with neighborhood organizations like the Near Westside Initiative to actively transfer land ownership from outside landlords to community members.
Syracuse is full of empty houses. These should be the most affordable options available to people trying to buy a home, but too often these houses belong to people who prefer to keep the buildings vacant. When these property owners fail to pay their taxes, the Greater Syracuse Land Bank can seize their buildings. As an institution committed the the community’s future, the Land Bank can then sell these houses to people who want to live in them.
Large apartment buildings will always be too expensive for a single family to purchase, but groups of families can pool their money to purchase these buildings cooperatively. The people living at 377 West Onondaga Street have done this, meaning that each resident owns a share of the entire building and will benefit when it appreciates in value. This is currently Syracuse’s only cooperatively owned apartment building, but neighborhood groups have adopted a similar strategy to rehabilitate vacant apartment buildings in other areas of the City.
Too many cities, hungry for tax revenue and good news, have actively promoted the luxury housing market, only to realize after the fact how much damage it had done to long-term residents. Syracuse has a chance to get out ahead of this now–to put its homes in the hands of the community before real estate becomes prohibitively expensive. Non-profit lending, the Land Bank, and cooperative ownership are all pieces of the puzzle. The community must take advantage.