When the Trump administration tries to harm Upstate New York, John Katko writes a letter about it. That’s what he did last week after Sonny Perdue announced a plan to take away people’s food stamps. The Congressman wrote a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture asking that “we don’t make people food insecure as a result of this.”
We’ve seen this one before. For three years the Trump administration has been making it harder for refugees to come to America. That’s bad for Upstate New York where new immigrants have been a blessing for so many struggling cities and towns over the last two decades. So Congressman Katko has written and co-signed letters about it, asking a man who campaigned for the presidency on xenophobia to abandon his signature policy and instead “uphold our nation’s commitment to assist individuals who have been displaced by violence and strife.”
But 2020 is an election year, so we won’t be stuck with that thin hope for long. Come November we can vote them all out and get a federal government and a local representative willing and able to exercise real power—to do more than write letters—to benefit Upstate New York.
Matthew Paulus, one of several developers with plans to build new housing at the eastern edge of Downtown, is trying to get goodwill and tax breaks by putting ‘affordable’ apartments in his newest project, but the rents don’t match the rhetoric—tenants will pay $1,050 a month, not including utilities. This is clearly not a good faith effort to engage with poverty or housing as those crises actually exist in the City, and it shows the need for City Hall to take a more active role in securing meaningfully affordable housing in Syracuse.
It takes some slick thinking to claim that $1,050 is an affordable rent in a city this poor. The first step is to side-step the City by talking about the Syracuse Area. Median household income in Onondaga County is about $55,000. These apartments are supposed to be affordable for households making “no greater than 80%” of that number, so $44,000. ‘Affordable’ housing shouldn’t take up more than 30% of a family’s income, so a family making $44,000 a year could ‘afford’ pay as much as $1,100 a month in rent.
But if Paulus ran those same calculations with the City’s median household income (about $35,000) instead of the County’s, then he’d get a definition of ‘affordable’ that would require him to set the monthly rent at something more like $650—that sounds a lot more like what someone might expect to pay live in Syracuse. Paulus can only claim that $1,050 a month is ‘affordable’ if he ignores the stark disparity between the economic situation on either side of the City line.
So the City line disappeared when Paulus was figuring out what is means for one of his apartments to be ‘affordable,’ but it will snap back into focus if he gets the tax breaks he’s asking for. If SIDA grants them, then that municipal boundary will shield suburban schools from the cost of that lost tax revenue, and it will put that burden on City kids.
City Hall has the power to flip this dynamic on its head and make the City line work for people living in the City. Developers want to build in Syracuse after all, and the Common Council has the power to enact affordable housing legislation that could apply to any development in Syracuse. City Hall also has control over permitting, zoning, tax assessments, and SIDA—an entire regulatory apparatus that can determine the success of failure of any given development. Syracuse’s government needs to use all of these tools to make sure that new housing is affordable in a way that really means something to the people living in the City now.
There’s going to be a lot of new housing built in the next few years. Developers, non-profits, and state and local governments are all looking to rebuild the eastern and southern edges of Downtown once I81 comes down. They’re all going to pay lip service to ‘affordability’ and ‘inclusion,’ but, if this project is any indication, it will just be empty talk. That’s not good enough. We need to be clear about what words like ‘affordable’ really mean for people living in Syracuse, and we need a City Hall willing to use its power to enforce those definitions and secure a better future for the entire City.
At its best, public transportation expands access to opportunity, but recent local examples show how it can also be used to do the exact opposite. Instead of creating a transit system that gives its riders more choices, options, and freedom, people with power have tried to use transit as a tool of social control.
Take the video that just came out of kids fighting at the Hub. After it made the news, Centro CEO Rick Lee promised to “put and end to this.” His simplest option is to run more buses. All those kids end up stuck at the Hub at the same time because they all have to wait a pretty long time between each run. If buses left the Hub more often, fewer kids would be there at any given time, and they wouldn’t have to waste so much time just waiting around bored.
And this wouldn’t just solve the ‘problem’ of having so many high school students at the Hub at any time—it would actually make the bus work better for those students and for everybody else who rides it.
But that’s not what anybody’s talking about doing. Instead, Centro is looking to run buses directly to the schools without ever going through the Hub. Never mind that this would cut students off from the rest of Centro’s network and limit their opportunities to work, participate in community activities, or access childcare after school. Concerns like that don’t matter when what you really want is to use the buses to make kids behave.
Or look at the perennial problem of the spatial mismatch—the fact that many employers looking to hire are only accessible by car while many people looking to work don’t own cars.
The most obvious solution is to run better bus service. In the short run, that’d make more jobs accessible by bus. In the long run, it would build Centro’s ridership and attract more employers to the places with the best bus service where they’d be accessible to all those potential bus-riding customers and employees.
The County could also use its economic development powers to encourage employers to locate along bus lines or within walking distance of communities with low rates of car ownership.
Instead, Onondaga County came up with a plan to subsidize Lyft rides for people who find work through a specific employment agency, don’t have access to a car, and can’t get to their jobs on the bus. The workers themselves will have no control over their rides—the employment agency “will monitor employees’ work schedules and pay Lyft each month for the transportation.” Eventually the County hopes that employers themselves will pay Lyft directly, giving managers direct control over workers’ transportation to and from work.
That will give employers just one more piece of leverage over their workers, one more pressure point to press, one more method of exploitation. But of course none of that matters when you think, like a manager, that workers should just be happy to have any job at all and you can’t imagine how it would be a good thing for them to have the ability to travel to places other than the worksite at sometime other than the beginning of the shift.
The proposed solutions in both cases use transportation to constrain people’s choices so that they do what they’re supposed to and nothing else. Students are supposed to just go directly home at the end of the school day—they’re not supposed to hang out somewhere they could get into trouble. Workers are supposed to just travel between their homes and their current jobs—they’re not supposed to have the opportunity to travel to some other job that might offer better pay or working conditions.
Transit should do the exact opposite. It should expand people’s choices. It should give them the ability to go where they want when they want. It should make people more free.
University students and people living in Syracuse long-term face a lot of the same problems and should be natural political allies, but some structural barriers keep them from working together to make the City a better place to live.
Take this garbage pickup proposal. City Hall collects trash from small residential properties but not from big apartment buildings. Right now, the cut-off between ‘small’ and ‘big’ is 10 apartments—they’ll pick up the trash from a 10-unit buildings but not from an 11-unit building. City Hall was talking about moving that cut-off to 4 apartments—any building with 4 or fewer units would still get free trash pickup, but now buildings with between 5 and 10 units would need to pay a private company to haul away their trash.
It’s pretty obvious that the result of this would have been to raise the rents on people living in buildings with between 5 and 10 apartments. Contracting out trash pickup would have cost those buildings’ owners money, and landlords would have passed that cost along to their tenants in the form of higher rents.
You can find those buildings (outlined in red) in most parts of the City, but they’re concentrated in Syracuse’s poorest neighborhoods (mapped in yellow). On the face of it, this is a bad policy that would take money out of the pockets of the people who can least afford it.
But a lot of people will look at this map, see that a lot of the affected properties are on University Hill and say something like ‘well that’s student housing, they’re not really poor, they can afford it, screw them.’
A lot of students, if they even ever see this map, will probably ignore it.
Both responses are short sighted. Students really are affected by what happens in the City—this law really would have raised their rent—and for that very reason, they are potential allies in the fight for a better Syracuse.
But there are structural obstacles that stand in the way of that alliance. The most obvious is students’ transiency. Say this change to garbage pickup had gone through, and several thousand people ended up paying more in rent. Give it a few years, and no university students will be around who would remember the change. Longer term residents can help students understand the small histories, like this one, that have shaped Syracuse over decades.
Another obstacle is the University’s ability to do for students what government should do for everybody. A lot of the time it’s easier for students to get the University to fix a problem than to go through local government—that’s how Syracuse has ended up with parallel segregated quasi-public services like the University’s transit system and police force. These services are insufficient, though, and ultimately fail to protect students from the same threats that people face throughout the rest of the City everyday. Students can improve their own lives by working with the rest of Syracuse to advocate for the kinds of positive change that the entire City needs.
Syracuse’s problems affect every single person living in the City. They are the result of an inequitable distribution of power that can only exist when the people most affected by those problems are kept from working together to solve them. So people in Syracuse hate on students, students ignore people in Syracuse, and both groups continue to face the same pressures day in and day out. If they organized together, they would have the power to make the entire City a better place to live.
The Reimagine the Canals Initiative—a statewide brainstorming session that asks ‘how can we make more money off the Erie Canal?’—threatens to reduce one of Upstate’s most valuable pieces of infrastructure into a tourist attraction.
The initiative follows last year’s Reimagine the Canals Competition. The judges of that competition thought that the Canal was most useful as a site for waterfront development and beer festivals. It also follows the Governor’s other big ideas for Upstate communities like Syracuse: amphitheaters, gondolas, year-round fairs—all schemes to attract tourists.
Tourism is a seductive economic development strategy. It could work literally anywhere, it gets out-of-towners to pay local sales and hotel taxes, and it flatters consultants and politicians from outside of the community by assuming that a place like Syracuse would be better off if it would just cater to their upper-class tastes.
But the Erie Canal isn’t just sitting there, useless, waiting for us to reimagine a reason that tourists might want to visit it. The Canal is a statewide flood control system. It’s necessary to the survival of dozens of Upstate villages, towns, and cities, and it will become even more necessary as climate change makes the flooding up here more frequent and more destructive.
The people who actually run the Canal understand this. Thankfully, they’re at least getting the initiative’s leaders to consider flood mitigation, irrigation, and environmental remediation alongside the flashier tourism proposals. Help them out by telling the Initiative that you value the Canal for what it actually does for the state. You can submit your comments at this link.
Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”
When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.
What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.
It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.
As the Republican Party digs in to defend the President, Congressman John Katko is losing control of his carefully crafted image as a ‘moderate.’
It used to be that Paul Ryan would help Katko maintain that image by allowing him to cast meaningless protest votes against unpopular Republican legislation. That’s what happened in 2017 when Katko’s party tried to repeal Obamacare. Republicans had a big enough majority to make it happen even though Katko voted against them. Ryan let him—and 19 other vulnerable Republican representatives—cast that symbolic vote so that Katko could come off looking like he was defying his party without actually doing anything to protect his constituents’ health insurance.
That’s all changed now that the Republican Party has decided to defend the President at all costs. Just last week the President told four congresswomen—one an immigrant, three native-born, all American citizens—to “go back” to the countries that they “originally came from.” Katko should have condemned that statement immediately because it’s the right thing to do, because he represents the 40,000 immigrants and refugees that live in his district, and because it would have been an easy way to maintain his image as a ‘moderate’ without actually opposing any of the Republicans’ disgusting immigration policies. Instead, Katko rallied to the Republican flag—putting out a statement that disagreed with the President’s style but not the substance of what he said. When the House voted to call that racism out, Katko fell into line behind the President.
Katko won’t actually challenge the National Republican Party on any issue, so he’s needed their help to cultivate a ‘moderate’ image in Central New York. That help isn’t coming anymore, and it’s getting harder and harder for him to disguise party loyalty as ‘moderation.’ Sooner or later, he’s going to have to make a real choice.
Chol Majok’s victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary marked both the beginning of a new era and the continuation of a long tradition in Syracuse’s politics.
This City has welcomed more than 10,000 refugees and immigrants in the past two decades. They’ve come to Syracuse from places like Somalia, Burma, and Bhutan. Majok himself is from Sudan, and he will be the first member of this most recent wave of immigration to hold elected office in the City.
That’s a good thing. Immigrants are making Syracuse a better place, and they deserve better representation in City Hall. More will follow Majok’s path, making local government more reflective of the people it serves, bringing new perspectives to the table, and letting the members of Syracuse’s newest communities know that they have just as much of a right to this City as anybody else.
But Syracuse’s history of welcoming the stranger goes back more than just two decades. Over the past two centuries, people have migrated to Syracuse from Germany, Ireland, Italy, the American South, and so many other places in search of a better life. Members of all of those communities have eventually gone on to hold elected office at City Hall, and that has always been a good thing for the City.
Chol Majok came to this City in 2001 as a refugee. He has been able to build a life here, to raise a family, and to contribute to the community. Now he’s going to sit on the Common Council and help guide the City to a better future. Syracuse has always thrived when it has embraced new people.
In Syracuse, local politicians are doing all they can to expand economic opportunity. At the same time, politicians in the State government are working to eliminate New York’s carbon footprint by 2050. These two groups of politicians—along with the activists and organizations that support them—should partner to advocate for better public transportation in Syracuse. A high-quality regional-wide service would expand economic opportunity by making more jobs more accessible to more people, and it would fight climate change by taking cars off the road. Working together as a pro-transit coalition, groups interested in each of these outcomes would provide Centro with the political support it needs in order to make this kind of service a reality.
The Status Quo
As it stands, Centro has very little political support. Nobody at the City, County, State, or Federal level values bus service enough to shift money from highways to public transportation, so every year Centro has to go begging for the money just to keep its buses running. That gets enough people riled up that Albany will push a couple million dollars Centro’s way—just enough to fill the deficit—and then the exact same thing happens all over again the next year
Without the political power to fund service improvements, Centro has crafted its planning process to make them impossible. SMART1—the most recent proposal to improve public transportation in Syracuse—focused almost exclusively on service within the City. That’s because when Centro plans transit service, it uses demand models that look like this:
According to this model, enough people live and work in the blue areas to justify improved transit service. The light blue areas can justify rapid buses, the medium areas can justify light rail, and the dark blue areas can justify heavy rail.
But this demand model assumes that any new transit service has to justify its existence by first attracting a certain number of riders. That means that good service can only run where lots of people already ride the bus, ignoring the fact that people choose to ride the bus in those areas because Centro runs relatively good service there. It also means that the areas where people don’t use public transportation can’t get better service even though low ridership is caused, at least in part, by how bad the service is right now. By ignoring the effect that the quality of service has on ridership, Centro is able to justify its barely passable service, and it avoids politically impossible requests for more funding. The result is too little economic opportunity and too many cars on the road.
A coalition of economic opportunity and environmental advocates could turn that logic on its head. When you recognize transit as a necessary tool in the twin fights against poverty and climate change, low ridership is a challenge to overcome rather than a sign to give up. The emerging pro-transit coalition should respond to low ridership by improving service in order to make more jobs more accessible and to better compete with car travel. Those improvements would attract more ridership, getting more people to work and taking more cars off the road.
Transit for the Whole Region
It’s not easy to run attractive transit service in suburbs where people and jobs are spread thinly over a very large area, but in the book Transport for Suburbia, Paul Mees describes how Zurich’s network of city rail lines and suburban bus routes accomplishes the task by making connections between the trains and buses simple, convenient, and cheap. Easy connections integrate each line into the larger network. That allows public transportation to cover the entire metropolitan area, and it gives riders the same freedom that they’d have in a private car.
For Centro, that could start with a fast frequent regional rail system connecting Syracuse to Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Cortland. Much of the infrastructure already exists parallel to the slow infrequent coach buses that Centro already runs.
Complemented by well-timed connecting bus lines—extending to Ithaca, say, or linking suburban communities and job centers along major roads like Route 31 and Taft Road—this service would open the entire region to travel without a car, increasing economic opportunity and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.
Political Support is Fundamental
This service—or something like it designed by actual transportation planners—won’t come cheap. It will cost money to acquire new rights of way, to buy new buses and trains, to hire enough operators to run them frequently, to time them precisely.
For Centro’s entire history, that kind of spending has been unthinkable. The money will have to come from the State or from the Federal Government, and that means that it will have to come at the expense of some other government program—highways, maybe. Good public transportation is a political choice, and it can’t come about unless people with power value it more than they value the other things that also require government funding.
That may finally have changed. Now that the environment and economic opportunity have moved up to the top of the agenda in Syracuse and in New York State, there may finally be a coalition broad enough and powerful enough to make public transportation a priority in this City. We can finally stop treating public transportation like a ‘program’ that’s only funded grudgingly, when all other options are exhausted and only at the bare minimum. Can we finally stop spending billions on highway expansion while ignoring million dollar plans for better bus service. We can finally take public transportation seriously as an opportunity to achieve New York’s loftiest goals.
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.
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).
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.