Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column written by Max Weisbrod.

As always, The Voice is interested in reprinting alternative or dissenting viewpoints. They can be sent to jstein@ithacavoice.com.


Ithaca, N.Y. — Why has the median purchase price for a home in the City of Ithaca doubled in the past fourteen years?

Why have rents skyrocketed hundreds of dollars a month — almost doubling in some instances?

The answer is politics.

The problem

Cornell University conducted surveys and studies on transportation use from 2005 to 2008 to better understand Ithaca’s (and Tompkins’) potential growth patterns and future transportation needs.

Their work showed that roughly 24% of Cornell staff commuted from outside of Tompkins County. More than half of those respondents (52%) chose to commute because of the cost of housing. Furthermore, of those who commuted in cars alone, almost a third of respondents stated that “living closer” would lead them to change modes of transit.

In the seven or so years since this study, conditions have not improved. Last February, city officials alerted the Common Council to grave trends in home and rental pricing in Tompkins.

Why is this happening?

The  “gouging” that landlords are frequently accused of is at best an effect of the pressures affecting the housing market, and, at worst, a harmful fabrication.

Landlords and developers are neither saints nor Satan; while there are probably some windfalls for landlords operating in Ithaca’s distorted market, we find that our situation is, in practice, more complicated than the facile demonizations might suggest.

A more probable answer is given by one property owner in the Ithaca Times:

David Beer of Beer Properties [. . .] “I haven’t studied the assessments yet,” Beer said, “but I’m not startled by the increases. Our rents go up with inflation, which is about 3 percent a year. If we get hit with a higher tax bill, then we might consider factoring that in.”

The City of Ithaca provides a fairly large number of services to its residents, the surrounding township, and–yes–Cornell University. Ithaca subsidizes mass transit, the public school system, and even county-wide policing; services that add up to a large tax burden–twenty-two cents of every dollar of rent collected, according to the Landlord Association of Tompkins County.

Zoning and anti-development pressures have depressed multi-unit developments for the last three decades. Courtesy Ithaca Builds
Ithaca is booming.

But while that twenty-two cents is being included in the clearing price of rent and housing, the housing market is still clearing; Ithaca has a vacancy rate of .5%, twenty-times less than the median vacancy rate of urban centers of 9.8%.

To put that in perspective, New York City declares a housing emergency when vacancy dips below 5%.

So Ithaca needs a lot of beds. The most recent community workshop documents for our city’s comprehensive plan cites that more than 13,000 workers commute into Ithaca each day, accounting for five-sixths of the city’s workforce. If those out-of-county staff members from Cornell are any measure, 5,000 beds wouldn’t be enough.

Housing markets have two principal parts: 1) supply of (generally highly differentiated) units and beds and 2) effective demand. The price individual units rent for falls somewhere between the most a potential tenant would be willing to pay and the short-term cost of maintenance of that unit borne by the landlord or developer. What a potential tenant is willing to pay is an based on an internalized sense of value coupled with available means.

In Ithaca, value equals proximity to where we work and play. We have bars and nightlife, shopping and groceries; things that are genuinely lacking in the outer villages of Tompkins. Most of all, we have Cornell University and Ithaca College, which are huge and resilient centers of employment.

Ithaca has wildly bucked employment trends for New York State, seeing 18% job growth since 2000, whereas Binghamton has shrunk over 11% and the state has only averaged 4.5%, according to Ithaca Builds. However there has been no commensurate increase in available housing; between 2000 and 2010, only 204 housing units were built in the City of Ithaca–a 2% increase, the Census shows.

Why this really hurts the poorest Ithacans

Unfortunately, that fits with longer historical trends dating back to the late 1980’s, when Collegetown was last rezoned to squelch densification. To be explicit, our housing crisis is political in origin, regressive in nature, and deliberate in focus:

“A number of cities dealing with the impact of student housing on neighborhood character and quality have recognized the “tipping point” concept as it applies to student housing. When a certain density of student housing is reached the character of a neighborhood is acknowledged to decline as rental properties are allowed to fall into disrepair and unavoidable student behaviors cause more and more owner-occupiers to give up the neighborhood and to sell their own properties to student housing management companies.

This fear, the concept of the “tipping point” also known as “urban creep,” carries the sad irony of self-perpetuation; instead of allowing the building of housing to absorb students, the politically endowed restrict new construction, creating conditions that promote, for example, the subdivision of suburban homes on Bryant Avenue.

This political maneuvering is pervasive and highly destructive to Ithaca’s housing market. Built into the new CAFD zoning, again heralded as a big win for densification, there is a clumsy attempt to simply zone out students in the CR-1, CR-2, and CR-3 zones by making it illegal for more than 3 or 4 unrelated person to share a household. These zones were outwardly described as “transition zones” for Belle-Sherman.

In this political reality, everybody suffers. Students are forced to live in housing they would prefer not to and in locations they would prefer not to, and homeowners inadvertently subject themselves to the very student presence they would like to escape.

But the worst evil wrought is upon those whom students — with access to their own household resources as well as financial aid from the university — outcompete, the working poor and lower-middle class.

These are folks who face longer commutes, worse access to amenities, higher rents, and disenfranchisement; their votes and voice are being stolen.

Downtown development. Courtesy Brian Crandall

What can be done about it?

There is hope.

Tompkins will have trouble reducing rent prices or increasing the supply of housing if the people most affected continue to be pushed to the far-flung fringes of of the county and beyond where they are able to vote on relevant issues.

But there is one dim light that might constitute a long-term solution; this last week, Cornell’s student government weighed in on a legislative issue at the city-level — Odd-Even Parking. This action, described by our student president as a “stepping stone to get more involved in the Ithaca community,” constitutes the first coordinated legislative effort between students (representing the interests of 14,000-16,000 Ithaca City residents) and the Ithaca City Common Council (representing, largely, the interests of the other 12,000-13,000 non-students) (“Special Tabulation #137”).

The interests of students are highly aligned with those of the disenfranchised; if this coordination points in any way toward student participation in local elections or greater student voice in city politics, all of us–even the detractors–would be better off.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.