Three reasons Syracuse needs new housing

Syracuse has a housing crisis, but when a new apartment build gets proposed there’s usually someone who asks whether Syracuse really needs any new housing. The thinking behind that question goes something like this: ‘Syracuse’s population is basically stagnant, we already have plenty of housing, why should we build any more?’

There’s good sense there. Syracuse’s overall population is stable, and it is good to invest in the City’s built infrastructure like its existing but deteriorating housing stock.

But there are plenty of reasons Syracuse also needs more new housing and why any new construction is, all else equal, a good thing. Here are three of those reasons.

population change from 2000 to 2020 (blue is growing, red is shrinking)

Some neighborhoods are growing

Syracuse’s overall population stability masks wildly divergent trends between neighborhoods. In general, since 2000, while the City as a whole has neither gained nor lost population, there has been a huge surge in the number of people living on the Northside, University Hill, and Downtown. At the same time, the South and West Sides have seen significant population loss.

Growing neighborhoods need new housing. Don’t build enough to make room for all the people who want to move in, and prices will rise. That’s what’s going on Downtown where new construction hasn’t kept up with demand and prices have shot up.

Many growing neighborhoods compete for residents with suburban areas rather than other City neighborhoods. When these places put artificial limits on the number of families who can move in, they spur sprawl and rising prices.

This house doesn’t exist anymore.

Existing housing is falling down

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Syracuse has lots of uninhabitable housing. In neighborhoods with fewer families than homes, lots of older houses and apartments have sat vacant for years, and our harsh winters and wet summers have done lots of damage to their roofs and foundations and walls.

Some of these houses can be rehabbed—and some contractors make money flipping dilapidated Land Bank houses—but many will simply never house another family. There just aren’t enough people willing to pay enough money to cover the enormous cost of renovating them—at least not at scale—so they sit empty until they fall over or get demolished.

With so much housing rotting away every year, Syracuse needs new construction just to house a stable population. That’s the idea behind City Hall’s Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative. They assemble contiguous vacant parcels in targeted neighborhoods and build brand new houses to fill the space left by demolished dilapidated housing.

This proposed building would have added 34 1-bedroom apartments to a neighborhood that needs them

Households are shrinking

More than 2 out of every 5 housing units in Syracuse were built before World War II. Life’s changed a lot since then, and Syracuse’s existing housing doesn’t exactly match the community’s needs. In particular, households are much smaller than they used to be (this is true across America). The average Syracuse household in 1940 contained 3.6 people. In 2020, that number was down to 2.6.

This demographic shift creates a need for new housing in two ways. First, smaller households mean Syracuse needs more housing to accommodate even a stable population. 205,967 people lived in Syracuse in 1940, but they only made up 57,009 households. 2020’s census counted just 148,620 people in the City, but those people formed 59,336 households. Even though 28% fewer people lived in Syracuse in 2020 than in 1940, that smaller population filled more homes.

And second, changes in household size create new needs for different kinds of housing. In 1940 there were 4,526 one-person households in Syracuse—they accounted for 8% of all households in the City. In 2020, there were 21,913 one-person households in Syracuse, and they accounted for 39% of all households.

But Syracuse’s housing stock has not kept up with the huge increase in 1-person households. Just 13,158 occupied units are either 1-bedroom or studio apartments. That means plenty of 1-person households are living in homes with more than one bedroom. Some of them may need the extra space, but many probably do not, so they are overpaying and competing for space with larger households.

That’s why so much new construction includes lots of 1-bedroom apartments—Syracuse needs more of that kind of housing because of huge demographic shifts that have occurred since most of our existing housing was built. Matching Syracuse’s housing stock to its present-day population is going to require a lot more new construction.

Syracuse needs new housing. We need it to make more room for people in the places they want to live, we need it to replace the housing that’s been allowed to fall into disrepair, and we need it to meet the new needs of new generations.