This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”
Why I shop downtown — Carmen
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The following is an interview with Paul Mazzarella, executive director of the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services.
What is INHS?
Q: Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time out to speak with the Voice today. INHS seems like a pretty busy org these days. So, leading off, could you tell me a little about yourself and INHS?
PM: Sure. INHS is a 37 year-old nonprofit corporation whose mission is to expand housing opportunities for people with modest incomes. Its programs includes real estate development for affordable housing, home buyer education, providing low-interest loans for home purchase or home improvement, and property management. As for me, I have a master’s degree in city planning, and I’ve worked as a planner in Lansing, MI, Amherst, MA and Ithaca. I’ve been at INHS for 24 yrs.
Q: Let’s start this conversation by touching on affordability. Why is it such an issue here compared to neighboring communities?
PM: Well, housing affordability isn’t just about cost, it’s really the relationship between housing cost and household income. Tompkins County’s housing costs are 40-60% higher than the surrounding area, but the incomes of residents are not that much higher [than the surrounding area]. This is what creates the affordability problem. The demand for housing in Tompkins County is very strong due to a stable economy, an increasing number of jobs and our high quality of life, all of which make this a desirable place to work and live. Tompkins has 24,000 commuters come into the county from neighboring counties for work every day.
Q: So why aren’t more private developers capitalizing? Do you think it would make more sense if private companies just bought cheaper land in Dryden or Newfield and build houses and apartment complexes there?
PM: Good question. One answer is that housing is bifurcated – student housing is a major portion of the market, and the student rental market can be more attractive to private developers because it’s more lucrative than conventional market-rate housing. Development patterns have also changed – many apartment complexes were built in the 1970s and 1980s, but that stopped in 1986 when tax laws changed and it became less advantageous. The local housing market has also been significantly affected by economic ups and downs. Overall, there has been a severe lack of development in the middle [tier] of the housing market.
INHS’ shifting focus?
Q: It seems in recent years (starting with Cedar Creek in 2009) that INHS has been focusing more on construction of new residences, when previously the focus seemed to mostly be rehab of current stock. Would you say that’s the case? Why the change in approach?
PM: Yes. Our initial goal of neighborhood revitalization has been replaced with a focus on affordability. Affordability is not just a problem in Ithaca, it’s been a regional problem, so our programs have been expanded accordingly. About 10 years ago, we developed a new strategic plan and decided to produce new affordable units- rehab of existing units wasn’t keeping up with market demand. New construction also allows for both the sale and rental of housing units that respond more directly to the demands of the market. We rent mostly 1 and 2-bedroom units, while most of our for sale units are 2 or 3-bedrooms.
Q: The Stone Quarry Apartments project had a lot of push-back from the community – too big, not the right place for affordable housing, environmental concerns…did the intensity or size of the opposition surprise you and your colleagues? Was it a learning experience?
PM: Yes! We were definitely surprised. We have never before experienced a similar level of neighborhood opposition. There were a number of mistakes in the way we approached and interacted with community. We didn’t do a good enough job communicating with neighbors in the early stages of the project, and this created a lack of trust and understanding. We learned that we really should be more engaged with the community during planning.
Q: So would you say the extensive community outreach with 210 Hancock (Neighborhood Pride site) is a result or outgrowth of the Stone Quarry debate?
PM: Yes, it is. We’ve been working to have the community more involved with the Hancock project. Our third meeting is tentatively scheduled for January 17th, it will definitely be announced beforehand. We’ve been really pleased with turnout at the previous meetings, we’ve had really thoughtful feedback and active community involvement.
What’s up with the federal $?
Q: INHS has been pretty successful with federal grants recently. How’s that money going to be used?
PM: We received $2 million from the Community Development Financial Institutions program (CDFI). This program is operated by the Dept. of the Treasury, and gives financial awards to mission-driven organizational lenders that provide loans to low income borrowers. We received the maximum possible amount that can be awarded, and the money will be used to expand our lending program to lower-income families. We provide these loans at below-market [interest] rates. INHS has also received a number of other awards from more traditional housing programs. We’ve been successful due to our track record of being on time and on budget.
Q: In the past couple of years, INHS has been developing residences in Ithaca town, first in Holly Creek and now Greenways. There have been some concerns that these projects are too far from the city core, and the town shouldn’t be part of INHS’s mission. It was recently announced that INHS will be merging with BHTC, its rural county equivalent. Do you think the affordable housing mission is shifting to the towns and villages? What would you say to those worried that INHS is contributing to suburban sprawl?
PM: There needs to be growth in housing opportunities, and that growth is not entirely going to be in Ithaca. We try to build in places where infrastructure, public transportation and amenities are already available, and we stick to urbanized areas. You might have also heard the concern that we’re not as focused on Ithaca as we used to be. In truth, we are still focused on Ithaca, we’re just working to do more in the surrounding area. With our merger with BHTC, we believe that a single entity can be more effective than either organization alone.
Q: What is the time frame on Greenways, by the way? It’s in phases, right?
PM: Right, it will be in three phases, roughly one year apart from each other. The first phase will start in Spring 2015, then Spring 2016 and Spring 2017. Those are the ideal time frames, it will all depend on the market and if the market changes. If the previous phase doesn’t sell well, we’ll wait before starting another phase.
What’s next for INHS?
Q: In the upcoming few years, how do you see INHS’s mission evolving? Where would you like the org to be by, 2020 for instance?
PM: We’ve actually completed two other strategic plans since the 2004 plan I mentioned earlier. By 2020, we want to still be developing high quality new construction. We’re dedicated to promoting home ownership, financing for current units and new affordable units. Right now, we’re starting to offer home buyer education classes and loans in surrounding counties; we started classes in Cortland County last year.
Q: Now that you guys have withdrawn from the Old Library competition, do you have any comments? Were you surprised there were five other proposals? Any personal favorite (apart from INHS’s).
PM: We weren’t surprised, it’s a fantastic site and a huge opportunity for a good project. When the Hancock site became available and we purchased the property, we dropped out from the Old Library competition because we felt we couldn’t handle two large projects at once. It’s interesting to see the other proposals, but I have no personal favorites.