Ithaca, N.Y. — There have been a lot of grand plans and little projects proposed in Ithaca recently.

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Here at the Ithaca Voice, we’re going to use the Planning Board’s Annual Report to scrunch it into five talking points that will put you in the know:

1. There’s a lot of cash moving around, and over half of it is directly related to Cornell.

Just how much? The projects approved in 2014 alone amount to $77.5 million, with another $41.9 million under review at the start of this year.

Since Ithaca collects planning fees based off of a sliding scale of project costs, the review of these proposals netted the city about $168,000 in revenue during 2014. Much of the money came from two projects – Cornell’s Upson Hall renovation (valued at $40 million) and Cornell’s Gannett Health Center renovation and additions (valued at $25 million). The most expensive non-institutional development approved was the Hilton Canopy Hotel downtown, valued at $11.5 million.

2. The value of new projects has been on the upswing in recent years.

Post-recession, interest in Ithaca has definitely picked up. $18.73 million in projects were approved in 2010, about a quarter of the value of projects approved in 2014. Looking at any single year by itself would be misleading, since one very large project can skew the numbers quite a bit; but the general trend shows Ithaca has been seeing more activity in the past couple years.

(The next three talking points are looking over the past several years.)

3. Interested in buying a new home/condo in Ithaca city? Don’t get your hopes up.

Since 2006, the number of residential units proposed in Ithaca – homes, apartments, condos and other living spaces – is 1,088. However, some projects that have been approved have yet to be built, either because they were waiting for warmer weather, current tenants’ leases to run out, or because they have yet to get financing. The number of units that have been built and completed from 2006 to 2014 is 657. For comparison’s sake, there are about 11,000 housing units in the city.

Of those 657 units, only 33 were intended to be owner-occupied. 5.0%.

There’s a couple reasons for this. Developers have said that Ithaca’s market doesn’t support condos. There’s not much room for single-family housing in the city either. Apart from a few scattered home sites developed by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) or private builders, there’s little in the way of new owner-occupied housing.

4. Affordable housing only makes up a small portion of new construction.

Affordable housing is defined as housing available to those living on low-to-moderate incomes – less than 80% of the county’s median household income, or $42,000/year and less. Since 2006, units intended for LMI households totaled 170 (25.9% of total), of which 23 were LMI owner-occupied. Most of the units were built by INHS.

As with owner-occupied homes, there are barriers to building affordable housing. As previously written by Jason Henderson, building affordable housing in the city is more difficult for a number of reasons, such as site availability, building costs and taxes. Getting the financing together for an affordable housing project is a complex, time-consuming process, a financial puzzle that needs to be pieced together. Most developers would just rather not bother with it.

Looking ahead, there will be some gains in the market in the next few years – the 35-unit Stone Quarry Apartments currently under construction, and the 65 units INHS is proposing at 210 Hancock Street. But with the exception of a couple single-family homes, no new affordable housing projects are expected to start in 2015.

5. Student rentals make up nearly half of new construction, and are booming this year.

Of those 657 housing units built between 2006 and 2014, 319 (48.6%) were intended for students, mostly in or close to Collegetown. Strong demand and a demographic group willing and capable of paying high rents make investments in Collegetown property stable and lucrative.

With the new Collegetown form zoning in place, the first projects approved under the new plan are ready to start construction, as is Phase III of Collegetown Terrace. Student rentals make up 91% of units (226 of 247) expected to start construction in the city this year. In fact, only one major project starting this year, Steve Flash’s 323 Taughannock apartment building on Inlet Island, caters to non-students.

While any new housing will help quench demand, everyone else needs housing too, not just students. If the market were stable, supply and demand suggests that students would fill these new buildings, and their interest in apartments with fewer amenities or further from campus would drop, bringing decreases in price that would make units more attainable for the rest of the community; this is something the mayor has expressed optimism for.

But Cornell’s additional 2,000 students over that same time period has stoked housing demands. With those increases in the student population, supply has been unable to keep up and demand isn’t likely to abate anytime soon.


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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.