Redlining by Another Name

Syracuse doesn’t have hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires, but FEMA still exerts a lot of influence over city residents’ lives. That agency maps the City’s floodplains, determining which people need to buy flood insurance under certain circumstances. Whenever FEMA amends the map–putting that financial burden on new people–it always makes the news.

But those marginal adjustments aren’t the real story. The real story is that FEMA’s flood maps are one of a set of ‘color-blind’ government policies that work in concert to recreate the 20th century’s racist housing practices, all on the pretense that it’s required by Syracuse’s geography.



There are two major streams in Syracuse: Onondaga Creek and Meadowbrook. Onondaga Creek’s floodplain gets a lot more attention because it’s bigger and covers many more houses than Meadowbrook’s does.


It’s tempting to say that this is just natural–the unplanned result of the different topography around each stream–but neither stream is in its ‘natural’ state. Both have been channelized in order to make their banks easier to build on and in order to keep them from flooding. It’s just that the engineers did a better job on one of those streams than they did on the other.



FEMA doesn’t require flood insurance for every house in its floodplains. That requirement only comes into effect if someone has, or applies for, a loan. Buy the flood insurance, and there’s no problem getting a loan, but, as Chris Baker reported, many people can’t afford monthly payments for both flood insurance and a loan.

This means that people living in a FEMA floodplain have limited access to credit. On the one hand that makes it difficult for someone who already owns a home to leverage that asset–one of the chief benefits of home-ownership. On the other, it keeps a lot of people from buying a home in the first place.



On some level, the extra cost of flood insurance should discourage people from trying to buy a home in a floodplain. Houses that flood aren’t a good investment anyway. Better for people to move somewhere, like Meadowbrook, that’s safe from flooding.

City Hall’s zoning maps restrict that kind of movement, though. The land around Meadowbrook has very large lots–often 4 times the size of the lots around Onondaga Creek–but it’s zoned so that there can only be one unit of housing on each lot. This restricts housing supply and inflates housing prices.


If ever there were a place to restrict housing supply, it’s on Onondaga Creek’s floodplain. That area, though, has very loose zoning restrictions, allowing for some of the densest residential development in the City. All that abundant housing ends up being pretty cheap.

The net effect is to push people away from the safe area around Meadowbrook and onto Onondaga Creek’s floodplain.



It just so happens that the neighborhood that floods, where it’s expensive to get a loan but cheap to live, where people can’t accumulate wealth, is a neighborhood that’s overwhelming populated by African-Americans (green on the map). The neighborhood with good flood control, where credit’s easy, and where people enjoy all the benefits that accrue to American homeowners is populated by Caucasians (blue on the map).


Who would have guessed?



When redlining was federal policy, nobody cared to disguise its racism. One factor in drawing red lines on the FHA’s Security Maps was the presence of “Negroes.” People were open, then, about making access to home ownership dependent on race.

That kind of honesty doesn’t fly today. Race can’t be an explicit reason for giving someone a loan or letting someone move into a neighborhood. Now FHA-backed loans are dependent on ‘color-blind’ criteria like whether or not the loan in question will be used for a house near a stream that floods.

But the streams that flood–in Syracuse anyway–seem to be the ones in Black neighborhoods. White neighborhoods, even the ones with streams, stay dry, and they stay homogenous because the zoning ordinance inflates their housing prices and makes it difficult for new people to move in.

It’s in City Hall’s power to unmake this racist housing policy. First, it can reduce flooding along Onondaga Creek by building a levy. That will shrink the floodplain on FEMA’s maps and expand access to credit for the people living in that part of the City. City Hall can do this as part of Phase II of the Creekwalk–the long-promised extension of the City’s best new public space into the Southside.

Second, City Hall can redraw the zoning maps to allow more housing in the neighborhoods where banks are already willing to make loans. That will allow more people to move into a good neighborhood where they’ll have access to the benefits that come from owning a home.