A map of all zoning in Onondaga County by housing type. The map is part of CNY Fair Housing's study on exclusionary zoning. Credit: Alex Lawson | CNY Fair Housing

Onondaga County’s suburbs have zoning rules that prevent affordable housing from being built and could price people out of the region, according to a report by CNY Fair Housing.

“We found what we expected,” said Alex Lawson, CNY Fair Housing’s housing policy coordinator. “But it was worse than we expected.” 

The group’s analysis of zoning practices in Onondaga County come at a critical time: Central New York expects to soon see its first substantial population increase in decades. Rents and housing prices have skyrocketed during the pandemic, at least in part because of a lack of supply of housing. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed adding 800,000 units of new housing in the state.

The study found widespread exclusionary zoning in Onondaga County: Twenty-seven of the county’s 34 municipalities have “slightly exclusive” zoning or worse. Marcellus, Camillus and Onondaga ranked as the worst three suburbs for exclusive zoning. 

Cicero and Clay, two of the towns expecting the most development if and when Micron arrives, ranked as the eighth and ninth worst municipalities for exclusionary zoning. 

CNY Fair Housing officials in an interview with Central Current discussed how exclusionary zoning can hamper regional growth that facilitates public transportation and halts sprawl.

The nonprofit will be releasing the full report on Friday and will discuss their findings in a webinar at noon that day. You can sign up here to learn more. 

Towns and villages in New York state each create their own zoning ordinances. The CNY Fair Housing study is the first to compile all of the county’s municipalities’ zoning ordinances in one place. 

Onondaga County towns and villages zone out density

The majority of residential land in Onondaga County is zoned to prevent dense, multifamily housing development, the study found: 

“For so long in this community, we tried to get housing built, especially affordable housing, with almost no demand for housing,” said Sally Sanatangelo, CNY Fair Housing’s executive director. “Now we’re seeing this huge demand for housing and we still can’t seem to get housing built — besides sprawl, besides large suburban subdivisions, and bigger and bigger houses on bigger and bigger lots.” 

Yet, only single-family homes can be built on 74% of residential land in the county.

That leaves a quarter of residential land where “missing middle housing” — a term that refers to two-family houses, rowhouses, mobile homes and small apartment buildings — can be built. 

Even that development is restricted: more than half of that land requires a special permit to develop dense housing.

Apartment buildings with more than 10 housing units are allowed on just 3% of all land in the county and just 1% of land outside of the city of Syracuse. 

These policies have big impacts on homeowners and renters, and their wallets.  

When stringent requirements are placed on missing middle and multifamily housing, less housing gets built, keeping supply low, Lawson and Santangelo from CNY Fair Housing said.

Permits and processes — including sending developments to town boards and community comment periods — can slow down development and drive up prices, too. The study outlines how those and other, more complicated processes adopted by municipalities can lead to delays and project redesigns, increasing the cost to developers.

Just last month, the Cicero Town Board axed a 278-unit development because of residents’ concerns over the project’s density and the potential for increased traffic.

Zoning rules that prevent dense housing development have  other effects, too. 

Single-family houses are typically built on large, spread-out lots that push development further and further out from town and village centers. That makes public transportation less feasible and communities less walkable, Lawson said.

It can also promote housing segregation, according to the study. Minority families are twice as likely to rent their homes and live in missing middle or multifamily housing, according to the report.

“Zoning restrictions that ban the construction of diverse housing types perpetuate the County’s entrenched patterns of segregation,” the study said.

How zoning in Onondaga County can improve

CNY Fair Housing recommended three changes to improve zoning policies in the county: 

  • Allow a greater mix of housing.
  • Allow single-family homes to be built on smaller lots.
  • Allow development in commercial industrial districts. 

CNY Fair Housing officials said some municipalities are embracing these recommendations already. East Syracuse and Jordan are allowing for a greater mix of housing, for example, they said.

Jordan recently amended its zoning ordinance to abolish its previous three districts for single-family, multifamily and missing middle housing. The village now just has one zoning district.

East Syracuse allows two-family homes and small apartment buildings in every zoning district in the village. 

CNY Fair Housing also recommended municipalities allow single-family homes to be built on smaller lots. About one-quarter of all land zoned for single-family housing requires the homes to sit on a lot that spans at least an acre. While that increases the tax revenue for the municipality, it also increases infrastructure costs, Santangelo said. 

“These regulations mandate sprawl, they make public transit impractical, and they make new housing more expensive,” the report said. 

CNY Fair Housing recommends municipalities allow for redevelopment in districts zoned for commercial and industrial purposes. They pointed toward redevelopment planned at Shoppingtown Mall in DeWitt and Great Northern Mall as examples. 

About one-third of all the urbanized land in the county is zoned for commercial or industrial use, according to the report. Onondaga County has a number of struggling strip malls or factories that are no longer being used that can be redeveloped. 

“With all of these developments,” Santangelo said, “they all can not only be mixed-use but mixed-income to make sure we’re serving everybody.”

Read more about Housing and development

Suggested Reading

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.