The Green New Deal, Housing, and Transportation in Onondaga County

Congress is full of new members talking about a Green New Deal—a “broad and ambitious package of new policies and investments in communities, infrastructure, and technology to help the United States achieve environmental sustainability and economic stability.” The ideas for those new policies include regulations on carbon emissions, subsidies for alternative energy, and wetland reclamation. Less has been said about the relationship between housing and transportation, but Onondaga County’s experience shows that the Green New Deal needs to focus on that link in order to grow environmentally sustainable communities.

For 70 years, almost all new settlement in Onondaga County has contributed to global climate change. New housing has been built on former farms, it has been built too far away from jobs and schools for people to meet their daily needs on foot, and it has been built with big yards and cul-de-sacs that make public transportation ineffective and inefficient.

At the same time, people have been leaving Onondaga County’s older settlements—its City and its villages—where it was possible to live without a car. Syracuse, Liverpool, Solvay, and East Syracuse have all lost about ⅓ of their population since the 1950s and 1960s. That depopulation has drawn jobs and schools out of those older communities, it has made it more difficult for the people who remain to meet their daily needs on foot, and it has made established bus and train routes less effective and less efficient.

The result has been that many families living in Onondaga County can’t live their daily lives without the help of cars, and they drive those cars to run every single errand, attend every single church service, and visit every single friend. This is a terrible result for the environment.

It’s also reversible. In fact, the City’s Land Use and Development Plan anticipates that Syracuse’s neighborhoods will see exactly the kind of population growth that would allow Onondaga County residents to drive less often and burn less carbon:

“Several of Syracuse’s neighborhoods have borne the brunt of population loss and economic decline as regional population has shifted dramatically toward the suburbs since the 1960s. Despite this, Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living. The City of Syracuse possesses a concentration of interesting historic architecture, which dates from periods of dense urban settlement and is arranged in walkable neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods. Commercial corridors with low levels of activity and density today are dispersed through Syracuse’s neighborhoods in a connective, multi-nodal network which, when better utilized, are suited to provide centers of activity within walking distance of homes and support efficient mass transit.”

The document refers to the City specifically, but what it says is true of Onondaga County’s villages too. They all have relatively affordable houses. They all have neighborhoods where people can meet their daily needs on foot. They all have better bus service than their surrounding suburbs. They are all places where people can live more environmentally sustainable lives free from cars.

Affordability and sustainability sometimes work against each other, though. If a house is too cheap, then it’s difficult to get ahold of the money necessary to make major repairs. Banks won’t lend out the money to replace the roof on a house that isn’t even worth enough to be collateral for the loan. That situation—which exists in so many of the neighborhoods where the houses need new roofs but the residents don’t need cars—makes it financially impossible for many people to move into the communities where they can live environmentally sustainably.

The Green New Deal can remove this financial barrier by awarding grants for the renovation and/or construction of housing in neighborhoods where people can live without a car.

There are challenges to writing that kind of a policy well. To be effective, it will have to actually determine which communities offer the chance to live without a car—a determination that Syracuse’s City Hall has struggled to make as it rewrites the City’s zoning ordinance. To be efficient, the policy should limit its grants to those projects that wouldn’t happen without government subsidy—a limitation that both SIDA and OCIDA routinely ignore.

The effort of overcoming those challenges is worth the reward of creating a climate policy that makes it possible for people to live in communities where daily life burns less carbon—communities where people can walk to meet their daily needs, where Centro can provide quality bus service—communities like Syracuse, Liverpool, Solvay, and East Syracuse. That’s a policy that recognizes the link between housing and sustainable transportation, that addresses the difficulties of creating more of both, and it is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be a part of the Green New Deal.