The Public’s Interest in Housing on the Near Eastside

The Near Eastside needs more new housing, and it needs that new housing to be affordable for families with a range of incomes. Recent private for-profit development is providing housing for households at the top of that range, but it will take public and not-profit development to meet the needs of the rest of the community. City Hall should actively guide new housing construction in order to serve the public’s interest by making the neighborhood’s restoration equitable and sustainable.

In the private for-profit housing market, rents in new buildings are higher than those in older buildings. New buildings have to cover costs—to buy land and materials, to pay construction workers—that older buildings paid off a long time ago, and private for-profit developers cover those costs with relatively high rents. New construction on the Near Eastside is being driven almost entirely by private for-profit developers, and so it is much more expensive than older housing across the City.

In a different world where City Hall hadn’t destroyed almost all of the neighborhood’s preexisting housing, this would be less of a problem. New, private, for-profit buildings would still be expensive, but they would be surrounded by thousands of older homes whose mortgages were already paid off and whose owners could compete for tenants by lowering rents. In such a neighborhood, the construction of new housing—with newer appliances, better HVAC, and more amenities—could even help to reduce rents in older buildings by luring the richest tenants away.

But we don’t live in that world—City Hall did destroy almost all preexisting housing between Montgomery and Beech Streets—so there aren’t many cheap homes just east of Downtown, and no amount of private, for-profit, new construction will change that in your lifetime or mine. This is a problem City Hall will have to fix by directing the construction of not-for-profit housing on behalf of the public.

When the public builds housing, it doesn’t need to cover upfront costs solely with income from rents and sales. Instead, it can draw on the municipal budget to meet those costs with the understanding that—once you account for the full range of public benefits that flow from restoring a neighborhood in the City’s center—the public will come out better in the end. Those benefits include increased sales taxes from new businesses, increased property taxes in surrounding neighborhoods, savings on social and emergency services, savings on asphalt maintenance, better outcomes for SCSD students, expanded transportation options, and—most importantly—more people who need homes in Syracuse will have them.

A lot of land on the Near Eastside is already controlled by some public entity—be it City Hall, Syracuse City Schools, SUNY Upstate, or NYSDOT. The I81 project should include an agreement between those public entities to build new housing on that land on behalf of the public, NYSDOT should provide funding to build that new housing in the I81 budget, and that new housing should be made available at prices affordable to households making a wide range of incomes. This is the only realistic way to serve the public’s interest by restoring the Near Eastside sustainably and equitably.