Syracuse mayor makes ‘difficult and disruptive’ choice to bolster housing in 2 neighborhoods

Syracuse mayor makes ‘difficult and disruptive’ choice to bolster housing in 2 neighborhoods
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Syracuse, NY – Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration today will unveil a new housing strategy that breaks with tradition by spending millions of dollars in middle-income neighborhoods rather than investing only in the city’s most distressed areas.

City officials for the first time propose giving subsidies to homeowners in certain closely defined neighborhoods, regardless of income, to spur private investment and shore up potentially stable areas that are at risk of decline.

It’s a long-range strategy designed to compete with the suburbs for middle- and upper-income residents.

The first two neighborhoods targeted for investment are the Salt Springs area near Le Moyne College, and Tipp Hill including the far West Side.

The housing strategy, developed with help from consulting firm czb LLC, aims to reverse the lack of demand for — and the lack of private investment in – city homes.

“It challenges us … to make difficult and disruptive choices to use the limited resources we have available in ways that will make more Syracuse neighborhoods attractive for new residents and private investment,” Walsh said in a prepared statement.

The new plan follows the release last year of a housing study by czb that described Syracuse as a depressed housing market.

The study found that only 27% of the city’s houses were in good or excellent condition. It would cost more than half a billion dollars to fix up all the others, the consultants estimated, but there is greater appetite for private investment.

Given that Syracuse has little extra cash, the housing strategy is intended to get the most bang for every buck the city spends. The goal is to improve housing quality, spur private investment and strengthen the city’s tax base, said consultant Charles Buki, president of czb.

The strategy also aims to make the city more attractive to people who now tend to buy homes in the suburbs.

“A demand-based strategy is one that will strengthen the city’s balance sheet,” Buki said. “That doesn’t exist now. We are proposing adding this missing element to a large suite of ongoing city efforts.”

City Hall officials say they hope to raise as much as $25 million by the end of this year to be administered by the Syracuse Housing Trust Fund, a newly created agency. In 2025, the trust fund would start subsidizing housing improvements in the Salt Springs and Tipp Hill neighborhoods. That work would continue for a decade.

In a second phase beginning in 2027, city leaders intend to target two more neighborhoods for revitalization: Elmwood and part of Eastwood.

The Syracuse housing strategy would target funding for the Salt Springs and Tipp Hill neighborhoods at first. A second round of funding would target Elmwood and part of Eastwood.

The targeted areas were chosen because they teeter between prosperity and decay. They are strong enough to attract private investment from current homeowners but remain vulnerable to social and financial deterioration, according to the plan prepared by czb.

“Almost 100% of the old way of doing community development will have to be shelved,” according to the housing plan document. “Resistance to such change is to be expected.”

City officials stress that the new investment to help “middle neighborhoods” will be in addition to Syracuse’s current efforts to build up more distressed neighborhoods.

The city will continue to support federally subsidized new housing in distressed areas, for example, and income-restricted homeownership programs. The city will also seek to promote infill housing in distressed areas, especially if it targets a mix of income levels, said Michelle Sczpanski, deputy commissioner of neighborhood development.

The city also will continue its efforts to redevelop the East Adams Street area and the I-81 corridor.

The housing strategy is still subject to public input and a vote by the Common Council. Although council approval is not formally required, Walsh’s team wants a thumbs up from lawmakers before proceeding on a plan that will extend for years into the future.

“That component of it is important, just to make sure that we have the buy-in,” Sczpanski said.

Syracuse officials will host an open house to gather public feedback 5:30 to 7 pm April 30 at the Syracuse Northeast Community Center, 716 Hawley Ave.

Before launching the program in Tipp Hill and Salt Springs, city officials will work with czb to go door-to-door surveying homeowners and other residents in those areas to assess their needs and plans, Sczpanski said. The Syracuse Industrial Development Agency recently approved $400,000 for that effort.

Details of the housing programs in those areas will await the results of the survey, Sczpanski said. Likely, the city will offer some variation of these programs:

  • Small block grants: Small grants to groups of contiguous neighbors for exterior improvements and neighborhood beautification. Projects may focus on porches, fences, landscaping, and so on. Grants would be tied to group projects to increase the impact of the improvements and to foster neighbor-to-neighbor ties.
  • Home improvement grants: The city would provide matching grants, or loans convertible to grants, to make above-market property upgrades to homes.
  • Rental rehabs: The city would provide loans, convertible to grants, to rental property owners who upgrade and maintain properties to above-market standards while preserving rents for an agreed-upon duration.
  • Infill housing: The city may offer subsidies for above-market infill housing that reinforces the positive message of community investment.

Unlike traditional housing subsidies, the grants in Tipp Hill and Salt Springs would not be restricted by the income of the recipient.

The housing strategy categorized neighborhoods of Syracuse into three basic tiers — stable, middle and distressed. The city’s goal in the poorest and most distressed areas will be to stabilize the housing with vigorous code enforcement, demolition of blighted properties, lead abatement, and assistance for landlords who fix up their properties, the document says. At the stable end of the spectrum, Sedgwick, Strathmore and Meadowbrook were considered “healthy markets” in no need of assistance.

Syracuse’s proposed new housing strategy would offer assistance to property owners in Tipp Hill, shown here, and in Salt Springs.

The first two neighborhoods targeted for intensive revitalization – Tipp Hill and Salt Springs – are among the “middle neighborhoods” with strong potential for either recovery or decline. Investment in the two areas was considered to have high probability of success, in part because each neighborhood features an important community anchor — Le Moyne College near Salt Springs, and Burnet Park and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo near Tipp Hill.

In recent months, czb and city officials have worked with a steering committee of about 30 elected officials, civic leaders, housing developers and others to hone the housing strategy.

Onondaga County Legislator Maurice “Mo” Brown, a member of the steering committee, said the final strategy is not perfect in his eyes, but it is a good plan that is the product of difficult choices.

“I think that there are other ways that could have worked,” Brown said. “But I think this way will work. And I’m glad that there is a plan in place that’s data driven.”

Brown said he would have preferred a plan that directed more resources toward developing low-income housing, but he also sees the argument for helping owner-occupants. If Micron Technology brings thousands of new workers to the area for its planned $100 billion chip fab, Syracuse needs some of them to live in the city.

“It does make sense, especially with Micron and all of the things coming. You want people to view places in the city as viable living options. We have to compete with Manlius and Clay,” he said.

Syracuse would join a number of cities that have adopted such middle neighborhood strategies. The cities share a common fate of urban disinvestment. Their problem is housing that suffers from a lack of demand and a lack of investment, leading to gradual decay.

Des Moines, Iowa, another city advised by czb, adopted a middle neighborhoods strategy a few years ago. The city formed a new nonprofit, Invest DSM, which targeted investments in four city neighborhoods.

The results have been positive, said Amber Lynch, executive director of Invest DSM.

Since 2020, Invest DSM has made grants totaling $9.1 million, Lynch said. Those grants leveraged $37.8 million in matching private investments, she said.

“The impact has been pretty astonishing,” Lynch said. “We are, even just a couple of years in, seeing really visible changes in the way the neighborhoods look and feel.”

All told, 1,011 projects have been completed in four neighborhoods of Des Moines, she said. About half were small, exterior “curb appeal” repairs. The remainder were larger home renovations or other types of projects, Lynch said. Nineteen out of every 20 projects were undertaken by current homeowners.

Invest DSM gets $10 million a year in funding, half from the city and half from the county. The money comes from a new 1% sales tax authorized around the time the housing strategy was adopted.

Lynch said singling out four of Des Moines’ 50 neighborhoods for special treatment was controversial. Some critics argued that the sales tax money should be spent in the poorest neighborhoods.

“That one is a little difficult to respond to, because, of course, those neighborhoods and populations still should have investment,” Lynch said. But Des Moines has been able to use some of the new sales tax proceeds for housing efforts that target distressed areas, she said.

Syracuse Common Councilor Pat Hogan, who chairs the economic development committee, said he anticipates some controversy over the new strategy. But he said the strategy is based on “hard truths,” including that the city has limited resources.

“This is the path we have to take,” he said. “This is the only strategy that makes sense to me.”

The strategy would be implemented by the Syracuse Housing Trust Fund Corp., a new entity authorized recently by the Common Council. City officials have seeded the trust fund with $5 million in state money. If council approves the city budget as proposed, the city would put another $2 million in the fund.

Michael Collins, commissioner of neighborhood and business development, said he hopes to raise another $18 million now by the end of the year. Some of that could come from selling city property, such as the school district offices and other buildings now up for sale. City leaders also plan to ask for money from state and federal officials, private philanthropies, and Micron.

‘It’s really bold,” Collins said of the fund-raising goal. “But we’ve had some success (with previous grant proposals). If we fall short, we’ll fall short trying.”

You can read the Syracuse Housing Strategy here.

Staff writer Tim Knauss can be reached at: e-mail | Twitter | 315-470-3023.

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