ITHACA, N.Y. – In the spirit of Presidents’ Day, we’re going to let, you, the reader, play the role of decision-maker. Unofficially, that is.

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There’s a development dilemma underway at a vacant lot at 402 South Cayuga Street, just south of downtown. The site, which previously held an apartment building demolished in 2001, is owned by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, the city department in charge of trying to improve Ithaca’s housing and economy, especially for families of modest means.

In 2013, the IURA entered into an agreement with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) to sell the vacant lot to the non-profit for the construction of four affordable, owner-occupied townhouses. The IURA had requested bids for the site, received two, and awarded the property based on who could earn the higher score on their community benefits scorecard.

INHS went forward with the approvals process, going before the planning board, the BZA, and getting the project approved. Then came financing the project. In a time where INHS has already had to cancel one affordable housing project due to skyrocketing construction costs.

“INHS informed the IURA that we cannot go forward with the for-sale townhomes that were originally conceived.  We have left the door open about building rental units there instead of for-sale units,” said Paul Mazzarella, Executive Director of INHS.

Owner-occupied units can be more desirable than rentals for a couple of reasons – owners are more devoted to their neighborhoods, and affordable owner-occupied housing is especially hard to find in a city going through an affordability crisis.

Enter proposal #2. Local architect Zac Boggs and his partner, former Planning Board member Isabel Fernández have submitted an alternative to the IURA. Their proposal would also offer four townhouses. The units would be rentals for 2 to 5 years, but then go up for sale in the non-inflation adjusted $180,000-$230,000 range, which is somewhat above the range of affordable housing – the average house In Ithaca sells for about $220k, so they’re more middle market. For comparison’s sake, the affordable townhouses INHS recently sold in the town of Ithaca went for $125,000-$145,000, depending on size and number of bedrooms.

Both projects are low-energy constructions, both projects make use of an under-utilized site close to downtown. They’re about the same size.

So what do you do, dear reader? Sacrifice some affordability for some home ownership? Or focus on affordable housing, even though the residents would be home renters instead of buyers?

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Granted, this question is boiling down a really complicated review into a simple choice using the basic details. The IURA will probably have to break out their community benefits scorecard again. But, in the spirit of the holiday, tell us what you think with your vote and in the comments.

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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.