Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial written by Ithaca Voice Editor Jeff Stein.
To submit an alternative or dissenting viewpoint, contact me anytime at email@example.com.
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Bus To Nature: Route 22
ITHACA, N.Y. — They took turns Wednesday night at Ithaca’s City Hall, trading statistics like boxers trade punches, each passionately committed to their side and well-versed in its intricacies.
One speaker would get up and say why he opposed Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services’ $14 million affordable housing project for 210 Hancock Street: Too little parking; too tall a building; too removed from the character of the Northside neighborhood.
Then someone else would get up and say why she supports the project: There’s a critical need for affordable housing in Ithaca; the project is beautifully designed; the new density has to go somewhere.
Some talked about the Board of Zoning Appeals. Others cited traffic studies. A few other speakers cited esoteric floodplain regulations and different construction techniques INHS may or may not use.
When the few dozen speakers had finished, more than 50 minutes had passed. Almost nobody, from what I could tell, had left the meeting after taking their turn at the microphone.
They then stayed another hour after that, until almost two hours after the meeting began, when Ithaca’s Common Council voted 7-2 to approve $100,000 in funding for the project.
Avoid easy stereotypes on INHS fight
There’s been a lot of heated rhetoric around the INHS project. And there should be: This is a major development that would permanently alter a beloved section of the community.
But it’s equally important for deeply felt emotions to not give way to false characterizations.
Let me explain:
1 — Opponents of the project are sometimes dismissed as NIMBY elitists, afraid of low-income residents moving into their backyard and allegedly resentful of the poor.
Are there critics out there for whom this may be a factor? I suppose it is possible.
But anyone at City Hall Wednesday night would know that this description would also be unfair to (at the very least) a significant majority of the project’s vocal foes.
A good example would be Kip Wilcox. “I respect the work of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services in enabling many Ithacans to buy an affordable home,” Wilcox said to the Common Council. “As an INHS homeowner myself, I am grateful to this agency for its role in helping me purchase my house on First Street 23 years ago.”
This is, unequivocally, just not someone who is opposed to INHS’ building project because she dislikes poor people. And there were many other speakers who confirmed that impression.
“I didn’t hear anybody tonight say they were opposed to affordable housing,” said George McGonigal, a Common Council member, echoing my own thoughts on the matter. “Some people think a very dense 4-story building is perfectly appropriate, and other people do not.”
2 — A similarly unfair characterization, I think, is the idea that INHS and its backers are somehow not part of the “true” fabric of Ithaca.
The suggestion goes something like this: City Hall officials and others who advocate for major affordable housing projects are naively pushing Ithaca to look like Syracuse or Rochester — to turn it into a city that’s not Ithaca at all. The implication is that this group is willing to sacrifice the character of Ithaca to add cash to city coffers, or that they don’t fundamentally understand the city’s DNA, or that they’re thoughtlessly leading a wild building boom.
I think this idea is also wrong. A majority of those who push Ithaca’s affordable housing projects — like the Hancock Street plan — are far from fleeting members of the city.
More importantly, they’re addressing what really is a crisis in Ithaca — a lack of affordable housing that threatens to push middle class residents out of the city for good.
“We need the housing … there’s a huge crunch,” said Common Council member Seph Murtagh, who noted that the city has a vacancy rate below 1 percent, Wednesday night.
“I hear stories all the time of people who are being pushed out of this community … When you build a four-story building you can provide more housing. And that’s an important thing to remember.”
Not a false equivalence
I want to be clear about something else: Just because I think both sides are motivated by what is essentially goodwill does not mean both sides’ arguments have equal merit. (On that point, I’ll delay judgement for a later date.)
But both sides — even as they squabble over this project — remind me of what makes Ithaca a great place to live: 1) Its pride of place, and 2) Its citizens’ political idealism.
Here we have one group going to great lengths— writing letters, showing up to nighttime City Hall meetings, learning about the Board of Zoning Appeals — to preserve what they hold dear about Ithaca. To make sure that the neighborhood they’ve come to adore is the one they can give to their children.
And then, on the other hand, we have another group: Those deeply committed to expanding affordable housing in Ithaca … not for any personal reason, but because they want complete strangers to share a piece of the town they love.