Housing Instability and Rent

Since 2015, City Hall’s Innovation Team has worked out new solutions for old municipal problems like aging infrastructure and snow covered sidewalks. Since February of 2018, the I-Team has set its sights on housing instability—both a major cause and effect of poverty in the City.

In a recent series of blog posts, the I-Team described its recommendations (also summarized on this 1-page handout). They include things like more active code enforcement, better provision of social services to renters on the brink of eviction, and organizing renters into a tenants union.

These initiatives are a helpful mix of quick-fixes (like tenant and landlord education) and long-term structural changes (like a tenants union). They include scalable pilots (like anti-eviction case management for SHA tenants) and city-wide initiatives (like the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication). By approaching the problem from so many angles, at so many scales, and on so many different timelines, the I-Team has developed a raft of policies that should improve the lives of people living in Syracuse even if one initiative or another ultimately fails.


However, this set of policies skirts a central cause of housing instability in Syracuse: the gap between the rents that landlords charge and what tenants can afford to pay. A strong and militant tenants union could eventually push rents down (although the I-Team seems to see such a union focusing instead on fighting evictions and educating renters), but expanded rental registry and more proactive code enforcement will likely push rents up. In a city where 56% of tenants can’t afford their rent, that’s not enough.

It’s within City Hall’s power to address this. First, City Hall can put affordability at the center of its Blueprint 15 plans by ensuring that the project does not reduce the total number of affordable homes in Syracuse. This will mean increasing the size of the project and potentially expanding its footprint to include state-owned land on Downtown’s eastern edge.

Second, City Hall needs to enforce its own 2016 ban on source-of-income discrimination in Syracuse’s rental market. A year and a half after City Hall enacted that ban, landlords still advertise in plain language that they will not rent to tenants who receive public assistance. Without proper enforcement, the ban has no effect and rent-burdened tenants are denied housing choice. (This year’s State budget included a state-wide ban on source-of-income discrimination—maybe it will have more effect).

Third, City Hall can restructure the City’s private housing market to reduce rents in the long term by amending its zoning ordinance. That ordinance puts an artificial limit on the number of homes in the City, it prevents land lords from modifying their properties to better serve a changing population, it makes it hard to build new homes where they’re needed most, and it pushes high-priced development into low-income neighborhoods where the rent-burden is greatest. The ReZone project is an opportunity to remove all of these artificial generators of housing instability, and that’s an opportunity City Hall can’t afford to waste.

So much of what drives up rents and causes housing instability—financial markets, construction costs, HUD policies—is completely beyond local control. These are national problems faced by every city in the country, and some of the most effective solutions will have to come from the national level. But City Hall isn’t powerless to improve the situation for people living in Syracuse now. The I-Team’s proposals will do a lot of good. They’ll do even more when coupled with additional policies that tackle rent head-on.