Syracuse’s zoning ordinance makes most buildings illegal. Before anyone can build almost any new building or put an old one to almost any new use, they have to get a special exemption from the zoning code in the form of a variance or permit. This seemingly bureaucratic process is actually intensely political—the zoning appeals board and planning commission have discretion to approve or deny these permits and applications, and they can be influenced by well-connected people, businesses, organizations, and politicians. Vocal interest groups disrupt the hearings, political allies call in favors, campaign contributors air their concerns over lunch with the mayor.
This is how zoning actually works—the mechanics behind the ordinance that determine what gets built and in what neighborhoods. It exposes almost all new building—from high-priced apartments to emergency shelters—to political interference, and its practical effect is to decrease housing opportunity, drive up rents, and perpetuate exclusion across the City.
Take the apartment building planned for the Temple Concord site at the corner of University and Madison. Syracuse’s antiquated zoning code still considers that to be a semi-suburban residential area, so—among other onerous restrictions—it requires new buildings to have a 77’ rear setback. That’s just not practical for the kind of land use the neighborhood needs now, so the developer is requesting a variance to build closer to the property line.
The landlord next door doesn’t like that. Sure, his building is also ‘too close’ to the property line and would require a variance to get built today, but that’s not the point. The point is that incumbent landlords don’t like competition because it puts downward pressure on rents, and so he’s using a clearly outdated zoning ordinance to try and deny alternative housing options to his potential future tenants.
It’s hard to worry too much about two landlords fighting over tenants on University Hill, but these same bureaucratic mechanics also operate in other neighborhoods where they contribute to exclusion and segregation.
That’s what happened in Westcott two years ago when Syracuse’s overly restrictive zoning ordinance kept a developer from building 32 new apartments in a neighborhood with an acute housing shortage. Household sizes are shrinking in Westcott, but the century-old housing stock is mostly homes with 3 or more bedrooms, so rents are going up and people crowd together with roommates to afford this high-opportunity neighborhood.
32 new 1-bedroom apartments would have helped the neighborhood adjust to this changing demographic reality, but Syracuse’s zoning ordinance doesn’t really account for that kind of construction outside of a few very select areas, so the project required a variance. In a politically powerful neighborhood where the loudest voices often oppose new rental housing, the project was rejected out of hand, and 32 people who could have lived in Westcott have had to find alternative housing elsewhere.
But some people can’t just find housing elsewhere. The men who stay at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter don’t really have anywhere else to go, and now that shelter itself is struggling to find a place to operate. It had intended to relocate to an abandoned building on West Genesee in the shadow of the West Street expressway, but an influential political donor with nearby real estate interests has run the shelter off with threats of frivolous litigation.
Now, those same anti-housing forces are trying to make sure their task is easier next time by amending the zoning ordinance to require a permit for any new ‘care home’ anywhere in the City. This legislation would require the planning commission to approve each individual emergency shelter, group home, and assisted living facility, and it would open all of these different kinds of housing arrangements to the same kinds of bad faith opposition that have made new housing so hard to build in any high-opportunity neighborhood in this City.
This is how zoning really works in Syracuse today. The zoning code is intentionally restrictive so that almost all new housing has to be approved on a case-by-case basis. That opens each project to obstruction from well-connected developers, politically powerful interest groups, and campaign contributors. All too often, these actors find their interests in opposition to the City’s least politically connected residents—renters, low-income families, people with disabilities, the unhoused—and they use the zoning ordinance to perpetuate systems of exclusion and segregation that make it so hard for so many to find a decent place to live in this City.
To begin to unmake those inequitable systems, City Hall first needs to reject this care homes zoning amendment. It’s practical effect will be to ban emergency housing from politically connected neighborhoods and concentrate it—along with so many other social services—in the places where no deep-pocketed donors live.
And then, City Hall needs to pass a new zoning ordinance that does away with all of this nonsense. ReZone—City Hall’s delayed plan to modernize the zoning ordinance—needs to be amended so that it doesn’t just reinstate these existing inequalities, and then it needs to be put into law so that everybody in this City can get the housing they need.