Coming Back from the Brink

Mark Headd
9 min readJul 6, 2016


Photo courtesy of Flickr user Oliver Hine.

Last August, a study from the Century Foundation identified cities in Upstate New York as places with some of the highest concentrations of poverty for African American and Hispanic populations anywhere in the nation. The problem is particularly acute in the City of Syracuse which holds the distinction of having the highest level of poverty concentration among African American and Hispanic populations of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.

This problem isn’t Syracuse’s alone — the study shows that Rochester and Buffalo also have serious problems with concentrated poverty. But the Salt City is an unfortunate standout in this report. In addition to having the highest concentrations of poverty among African Americans and Hispanics, when looking at concentrated poverty among non-Hispanic whites “…Detroit, Fresno, and Syracuse are the only metropolitan areas on all three lists.”

The Century Foundation’s findings echo those of an earlier study with a similar scope conducted by CNY Fair Housing, Inc. which found that the Syracuse area is “one of the worst scoring cities in the country when looking at equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity.” Given what we know about how concentrated poverty affects the life outcomes for people who live in it, it’s hard to imagine a more serious drag on the growth and well being of our region than deliberately forcing people to live in places where they are surrounded by poverty and given them few options of getting out.

But that’s exactly what we do.

…[W]e are witnessing a nationwide return of concentrated poverty that is racial in nature, and … this expansion and continued existence of high-poverty ghettos and barrios is no accident. These neighborhoods are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.

— Paul Jargowsky, the Architecture of Segregation

Syracuse’s issues with poverty and neighborhood decline are not an accident. Like many other cities, Syracuse still shows the scars of redlining and other discriminatory practices that prevented investment in specific neighborhoods deemed at the time to be undesirable. Looking at redline maps of Syracuse from the 1930’s shows a disturbing correlation with neighborhoods that are now struggling with concentrated poverty.

Our contemporary problems with poverty in Central New York are also not accidental — they are the result of conscious policy decisions made by government officials in our region and are further amplified by federal and state tax policy. The cumulative impact of these policies has left the Central New York region deeply segregated and with unrivaled levels of concentrated poverty.

Improving our community will require us not only to understand how these policy decisions are made and how they contribute to the concentration of poverty, it will require those of us in Central New York not living in areas of high poverty to understand how we are complicit in these decisions. But even beyond this, reversing the concentration of poverty in our region will require political courage and strong leadership from county, state and federal officials.

The Cost of Complexity

Earlier this year, the Commission on Local Government Consolidation (the Consensus Commission) issued a preliminary report outlining some options for streamlining the administration of local government in Central New York. Under the unifying theme of “we can do better” the Commission listed a host of different areas where local services are duplicative and wasteful. A community wide discussion on the potential benefits of government consolidation has ensued. Though the issue of concentrated poverty is touched on briefly in the Consensus Commission report, one of the primary factors contributing to the problem is buried near the end and not deeply examined.

Land use planning (discussed on page 69 of the Consensus Commission report) — the rules governing what kinds of structures and buildings get built in our community, and where they may be located — is highly decentralized in Onondaga County, scattered across many local jurisdictions.

In total, we estimate that more than 550 board members are involved in land use and planning activities across Onondaga County — nearly 200 municipal board members, 195 planning board members, and 169 zoning board members. Each municipality possesses its own zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations, and other local laws / ordinances related to planning.

— Commission on Local Government Modernization, Options Report & Preliminary Committee Recommendations

Even more important, there is a lack of a comprehensive, enforceable land use plan for the entire county to guide this vast collection of local officials. This means that each local governments in Onondaga County has latitude for establishing its own set of rules for land use within its jurisdiction, with no enforceable central coordination at the county or regional level.

This is a recipe for exclusionary zoning practices, which occur when wealthier suburban jurisdictions enact land use restrictions that drive up the cost of housing and crowd out affordable accommodations.

Traditionally, exclusionary zoning policies have kept poor, central city residents out of suburbs with minimum lot size requirements, single residence per lot requirements, minimum square footage requirements, and costly building codes. Together, these requirements make it difficult to build multi-family rental units that would allow lower-income residents to live in wealthy suburban developments with access to quality schools and employment.

— Elliott Anne Rigsby, Understanding Exclusionary Zoning and Its Impact on Concentrated Poverty

In other words, low-income residents are priced out of the suburbs by land use decisions that get made by a decentralized collection of small local boards. It is the collective impact of these parochial decisions that has resulted in the level of concentrated poverty we see in Syracuse.

This issue was raised long before the Consensus Commission report, and before the Century Foundation report singled out Syracuse for its unmatched level of concentrated poverty. In 2014, the CNY Fair Housing, Inc. study found that.

…in many parts of the county, exclusionary zoning policies exist that drive up the cost of developing new housing. This includes large minimum lot size or coverage requirements. In addition, the County has identified that the lack of uniform procedures among the 34 municipalities within the County Consortium increases the cost of developing housing. This lack of uniformity also reduces transparency in the system, making it more difficult to monitor how the municipalities are working to further fair housing.

— CNY Fair Housing, Analysis of impediments to Fair Housing

Concentrated poverty in Syracuse is not new — the problem has festered and deepened over decades (particularly over the last decade and a half according to the Century Foundation report). It is also not accidental — the cumulative impact of local land use decisions made by hundreds of different local officials in isolation and tax benefits enjoyed disproportionately by residents in wealthier suburban areas all contribute to the severity of the problem.

We all carry some of the blame for pushing our community to the brink.

Subsidizing Poverty

The Century Foundation Report provides a clear (and disturbing) picture of concentrated poverty in Syracuse — but this only shows one part of the picture. Exclusionary zoning practices and suburban subsidization drives up the cost of home ownership outside of the City of Syracuse — putting it out of reach for low and moderate income families.

Using data from Zillow, we can get a glimpse of the rest of the picture, and clearly see the disparity in homeownership costs between the poorer sections of the City of Syracuse and more wealth suburban towns and villages.

This map shows median home values by zip code in Onondaga County as of May 31, 2016. With this view, we get a clearer picture of the impact of exclusionary zoning outside the urban center — median home values in the suburbs far outpace those in the city. To illustrate this point, consider the 13205 zip code (which encompasses the South side of the City of Syracuse) and the directly adjacent 13078 zip code (which covers the Town of DeWitt).

The median home value in the 13205 zip code in May of this year was $62,500 while in the 13078 zip code it was $225,000 — a difference of over 350%.

What’s worse — the impact of exclusionary zoning gets magnified by federal and state tax policies that allow wealthier homeowners to deduct things like mortgage interest and local real estate taxes. These benefits are used disproportionately by higher income taxpayers and provide bigger benefits for homeowners with larger mortgages and bigger tax bills.

Using zip code data from the IRS for 2013, we can map the differences in mortgage interest and real estate taxes reported on taxpayer returns. The amounts shown in the map below are an average of the deduction amounts reported by zip code, showing the relative benefit of these deduction to individual taxpayers inside and outside the City of Syracuse.

With the exception of a small area in Downtown Syracuse, we can see that the deeper blue colors (representing larger benefits) are almost totally in outlying suburban areas — this subsidy effect is even starker for real estate taxes.

In the urban 13205 zip code the average mortgage interest reported on individual returns was about $3,500 and the average real estate taxes reported was about $3,100. In contrast, the 13104 zip code in the Eastern part of the county saw an average mortgage interest of over $7,000 and the average real estate taxes reported over $10,000. These amounts were even higher in the 13152 zip code in the far western part of the county.

The small area in Downtown Syracuse that saw higher average mortgage interest and real estate taxes reported than the rest of the city likely reflects some recent redevelopment efforts, particularly in the Armory Square area. The overall impact of these tax benefits inside the city is quite low though — the number of returns in this zip code number only a few hundred, while the number of returns reporting these deductible amounts in the suburbs numbered in the thousands,.

These federal and state tax policies act as a sort of hidden government subsidy for suburban homeowners, deepening the impact of zoning decisions that get made by a maze of local boards and officials. Taken together, the combined impact of these varied policy decisions that get made at different levels of government is to institutionalize a system that encourages higher income homeowners to leave the City of Syracuse and forces lower income homeowners (or would be homeowners) to remain.

The disorganized nature of these various decisions does give us some wiggle room — there’s enough space for deniability, to convince ourselves that this is just a “city problem.” But the increasingly concentrated level of poverty we see in Syracuse is not accidental. It is the result of deliberate policy decisions that touch every homeowner in our region — whether we live in the City of Syracuse or not.

Everyone’s hands are a little dirty — there’s no smoking gun like with redlining in the 1930’s and 40’s but a fog of uneven outcomes and easy excuses hangs over our entire community.

We are all complicit in this outcome. And we all have a stake in fixing it.

Fixing our Broken Community

Reversing the level of concentrated poverty in the City of Syracuse is a key to our region’s growth and long-term prosperity. There simply aren’t any examples of areas in our country with growing economies and populations that have an urban core with the as many problems as ours does. We can’t hide out in the peace of the suburbs any more and pretend the problems aren’t ours. It’s as simple as that.

It’s hard to imagine a realistic plan for economic and community growth that doesn’t address our area’s problems with poverty. And since the factors that created this problem are the result of policy decisions made largely outside of the city, it’s hard to overstate how important it is for real leadership on this issue by county, state and federal officials — not just for Syracuse, but for other Upstate cities as well.

Fixing this problem will take time, but there are some things we can do.

First, let’s hold our county officials accountable when they decide to subsidize luxury housing in the suburbs. This is just terrible public policy given the current level of poverty concentration in our region’s urban core, and underscores just how rudderless our county’s land use decision making is.

Let’s use the local dialog happening around the Consensus Commission plan to advocate for centralized land use planning and an enforceable land use plan for Onondaga County. Of all of the many opportunities for consolidation identified in the Consensus Commission plan, this is the one with the biggest potential benefit for our community. If we failed to pursue every other consolidation opportunity but this one, our region could still see enormous benefits.

Finally, let’s insist to our state and federal elected officials that any economic development or growth plan they support should include — as a central component — addressing concentrated poverty in Upstate cities. This problem is not Syracuse’s alone and it’s hard to imagine an economic growth plan for the Upstate region being in any way effective if it ignores the fact that we have large portions of our urban populations trapped in poverty.

Our current County Executive grew up in the City of Syracuse and the New York State Senate Deputy Majority Leader is a lifelong Syracuse resident. The work of the Consensus Commission has been sanctioned and supported by the Governor, and has largely been received well in our community.

We seem to have the requisite political clout to begin addressing the problem of concentrated poverty in Syracuse in a real and lasting way.

Let’s not miss the chance.