March Virtual Open House for the Syracuse Housing Study

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Historical Context

Today's conditions bear similarities to a map from 1937

When the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) was started under FDR’s New Deal, its job was to revive residential lending during the Great Depression. In this role, it mapped Syracuse and other cities to guide lending decisions by banks and limit the risk of default. The map of Syracuse on this poster was produced by HOLC in 1937 and sorted the city into four “grades” based on lending risks, with green areas (“A”) representing low risk to banks and red areas (“D”) representing the highest risk.

The condition of properties was a major factor in the grading— but so was the makeup of the city’s population, which was 99% white at the time. The presence of Black, Native American, Jewish, and foreign-born households (mostly Italian and Polish in 1937) were included in notes about areas that were deemed on the decline or at risk of decline. These racially- and ethnically-biased grades informed lending practices during the postwar era.

This image of Syracuse’s 1937 HOLC map is courtesy of the Mapping Inequality Project at the University of Richmond. The exact boundaries from this map are used in the map below.

1937 HOLC Grade Boundaries on Modern Map of Syracuse

The condition of housing today reflects similar patterns as the housing conditions observed in 1937. For example, of the properties that are currently in areas that were graded “A” in 1937, 70% received an Excellent (“1”) or Good (“2”) rating in 2022. In “D” areas, only 13% of properties were in healthy condition in 2022.

Areas graded “C” in 1937 were viewed as already in decline. Today, nearly 50% of properties in those areas show signs of physical distress, and 40% are within areas of below average or well below average housing demand—they are blocks that have been stuck in a cycle of decline. 

Areas graded “D” in 1937 had older, declining housing near railroads and the old Erie Canal bed. The city’s poorest residents were economically and often socially restricted to these areas. When much of the housing was demolished during urban renewal in the 1950s-60s, displaced residents who remained in the city were largely shifted to “C” areas. 

Today, there are only 2,400 residential properties within old “D” areas, or 6% of the city’s housing stock.

Comparison of 2022 Property Conditions and 1937 Area Grades

Comparison of 2022 Property Conditions and 1937 Area Grades

This cross-analysis shows the percentage of current properties that are within 1937 “C” boundaries and also within the boundaries of today’s housing demand categories. For example, 6% of properties that fall within the historical boundaries of “C” areas are currently in areas of “well above average” housing demand.  

Decades of suburbanization without growth have shaped Syracuse's housing market 

The story of housing in Syracuse since the 1940s is driven, to a large degree, by how suburbanization has shaped  the movement of households and the location of housing options in Onondaga County. It is also shaped by the reality that, since 1970, population shifts to the suburbs continued despite population decline or stagnancy at the county-level. 

Syracuse’s population peaked in 1950 and has fallen 33% since then, though it did grow slightly during the 2010s. Meanwhile, the suburbs (everything in the county beyond the city) have grown continuously.

Since 1970, when the county’s overall population stopped growing, the suburbs have added another 52,000 residents. This pattern of suburbanization without growth meant that every increment of suburban development in the region was mirrored by decline elsewhere (namely, the city), and that infrastructure in the region was vastly expanded without expanding the overall base of households and businesses to pay for it.  

Population of City of Syracuse and the Remainder of Onondaga County Since 1950

Population losses in the city were not immediately followed by steep declines in households because household sizes have been steadily shrinking since World War II (including a rise in one- and two-person households). 

After 1960, the total number of households in the city began to gradually decline. The number of housing units, though, kept growing through 1980. The resulting  gap between households and housing units reflects the city’s growing inventory of vacant or underutilized housing units—many of which are obsolete and no longer on the market.  

Change in the Number of Housing Units and Households in the City of Syracuse, 1950-2020

Syracuse's suburbanization reflects, in part, decades of racial and economic segregation 

No understanding of the history of housing and suburbanization in the Syracuse region (or any region) is complete without an understanding of the role that racial segregation played in limiting the housing and economic opportunities of Black residents. Segregated settlement patterns that spanned the 20th century persist well into the 21st.  

Syracuse’s Black or African American Population 

as a Share of the City’s Population, 1930-2020

Syracuse had 2,000 Black residents when the HOLC map was drawn in 1937. But this small population represented 91% of the county’s Black population and was largely segregated to the city’s 15th Ward—an area graded “D” on the HOLC map. 

This pattern—of nearly all of the county’s Black residents living in the city, and nearly all of them segregated to small areas of the city—continued for decades. As suburbanization diminished the city’s overall population and housing opportunities opened up in other city neighborhoods, the suburbs remained largely inaccessible through both racial and economic segregation. 

This is beginning to change. While 80% of the county’s Black residents still live in the city (compared to 31% of all county residents), this is down from the nearly 90% rate that persisted from 1980-2000. 

Distribution of Onondaga County Households in the City and Suburbs by Income, 1980-2020

Distribution of Onondaga County Households in the City and Suburbs by Income, 1980-2020

The economic segregation that accompanied suburbanization has both sharpened and changed in recent decades.

On the one hand, the city has lost additional ground to the suburbs since 1980—losing more households with higher incomes who have plentiful housing options throughout the region. The city has also continued to struggle to hang on to working- and middle-class households.  

While households earning less than $35,000 are now 46% of all households in the city (compared to 21% in the suburbs) even these households are making suburban inroads. In fact, there were nearly 1,500 more of these households in the suburbs than the city by 2020.

The consequence of economic segregation—often a proxy for racial segregation, and vice versa—has been limited upward mobility for the city’s lower income households, insufficient investment in housing, and the fiscal incapacitation of city government.

Station #2 Posters Historical Context (PDF)

View the Station #2 Historical Context posters as a PDF

The information on this page was part of the March 2023 Open House for the Syracuse Housing Study.