ITHACA, NY – Ithaca’s latest approach to the affordable housing crisis is to create an incentive zoning plan that would reward developers for providing affordable housing. Unfortunately, finding a balanced incentive to regulation ratio is proving challenging.
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Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning and Economic Development Committee included a public hearing and committee discussion of the new plan.
“I think, generally, every incentive we’ve suggested has been opposed by someone, in a nutshell,” said Community Development Planner Lynn Truame as the discussion started. “We’ve had comments from developers saying we’re not offering enough incentives and comments from citizens saying we’re offering too many incentives. We’ve apparently offended everyone in the city so… that’s our starting point.”
As currently written, the plan provides three incentives, each with its own set of concerns:
- developers can be exempted from parts of the city’s site plan review — which raised concerns that the public’s ability to comment and provide feedback could be compromised
- developers can build one additional story over the height limit — which as always raises concerns about aesthetics and the city’s overall atmosphere
- developers can forego parking requirements — which seems the least objectionable, but the lack of parking can have an impact on a neighborhood’s character
The developers also have their concerns. Attorney Nathan Lyman, who represents some developers in the city including Jason Fane, spoke during the public comment portion. Lyman said that the developers he was working with believed the plan would actually have the opposite of the intended effect, and make housing more expensive.
“The group that I’m working with is interested in having a conversation with the planning department and this committee to try and fins solutions to the housing affordability issue,” Lyman said. “This is a national problem, not just a local or statewide problem. Passing laws and regulations like this will make housing more, not less expensive.”
Striking the balance
While the committee acknowledged that the program needs work, they also generally agreed that affordable housing remains one of the biggest issues in the city and that this possible solution was worth exploring.
The plan’s most exacting critic on the committee was Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who said early in the discussion that she didn’t feel that this was the best approach.
Brock advanced two alternatives. First, she suggested trying to streamline the city’s planning requirements, which can be time-consuming and expensive for developers — this was something Brock suggested should be examined regardless of the incentive zoning plan’s success or failure.
Second, she put forth the alternative of establishing a flat affordable housing impact fee for developers that would be used to subsidize affordable housing. She pointed out that such an approach had been proven to work in California, as it provided a path that was straightforward and predictable both for the developers and for city staff.
Nels Bohn, Director of Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, stated that according to the city attorney, there was no legal precedent for the fee in New York State, and implementing that plan could lead to the city having to defend itself in court without a strong case.
Discussion then returned to the plan as proposed, with the core question being: are the incentives worthwhile for developers without being exploitable? On a related note, how would these regulations be enforced?
For example, one regulation prevented the incentive housing from being used by students. Truame said that enforcement would be something that couldn’t really be worked out until the city decided what the incentives were going to be. However, she said that at least 500 other communities in the US used similar plans, so there were workable models to follow.
The committee did not vote on the issue on Wednesday, but most of the members said that they were interested in seeing the plan continue to be develop. Both Truame and Ithaca Planning Director JoAnn Cornish said that they would look to connect with local developers to better understand that perspective.
The recipe for a housing shortage
Alderperson George McGonigal asked a question that took a step back to look at the bigger picture: what is actually driving the housing shortage in Ithaca?
Mayor Svante Myrick, who was also in attendance, gave his theory on the perfect storm of factors that led to the issue.
There are three main factors: Tompkins’ economic and job growth, increased enrollment at Cornell and Ithaca College, and broader nationwide demographic trends.
Explaining the demographic element, Myrick said that both younger people and older people were choosing to live in cities more than they had in the past. Young people are getting married later, while older people are wanting to maintain a more independent lifestyle — leading both to choose city living rather than settling in the suburbs.
According to Myrick, more workers and more students, along with more people congretating the city for longer stretches of their lives, combined to play a major role in Ithaca’s ongoing housing crisis.
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