ITHACA, N.Y. — Everyone is affected by housing issues; for some, however, the impacts are much worse than others. Take for example, low-income households, people with disabilities, those recovering from chemical dependency or those escaping domestic abuse situations. For many, their housing options are fewer – they don’t have as many resources to obtain safe, supportive housing. These vulnerable groups, collectively called “special needs”, are perhaps the ones most impacted by the housing problems that plague Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Another component of the county’s soon-to-be-published Housing Needs Assessment focused on interviews with the agencies that support these vulnerable individuals, helping them to overcome the obstacles they face, including housing. Those interviews can be found here.

Although each interview was conducted separately, several recurring housing issues were brought up by interviewees:

  • A lack of adequate affordable housing (both transitional and stable, for low-income and working poor);
  • A lack of accessible housing. Examples include an inability to get to and from home, work and support services due to a lack of reliable transportation; landlords who refuse to accept housing vouchers, or landlords who do not allow service animals.
  • Poor quality, unsafe housing
  • A lack of enforcement of existing codes designed to ensure safe housing
  • No group home facility for youth who need independent, supervised housing (the nearest one is in Elmira)
  • No detox program at Cayuga Medical Center
  • A lack of sufficient advocacy to assist individuals with applications for services, jobs, etc.

Related to housing, specific themes emerged from the conversations with The Danter Company’s researchers. Housing stock is limited for a variety of factors, some controllable, some not. Ithaca doesn’t have much undeveloped land, and what can be developed is often high-cost and high-tax. At $400/month, DSS housing vouchers fall far short of meeting the high costs of local housing, and gentrification of urban areas has worsened the situation. For those in rural areas, a lack of inexpensive, stable transportation is a major problem. College students have more buying power place vulnerable groups at a disadvantage, and some landlords are also prejudiced against special needs groups. NIMBYism (consistent opposition to development or re-use) by neighborhood residents was cited in many of the interviews.

Danter was actually quite impressed with the county’s awareness and cooperation between service groups. They wrote in their observations that “[i]t is commendable that community representatives are making a genuine effort to work together to come up with housing solutions. This is documented by the fact that all interviewed agency members participate in the Tompkins County Continuum of Care Coalition and the Homeless Task Force, make joint referrals between agencies to meet client housing needs, and are partnering on some programs/projects to address housing concerns.”

The researchers had four recommendations for county staff –
1. Establish a county housing office for ease of coordinating services, communication and grant applications between groups;
2. Hold a conference with special needs service groups to share best practices, funding opportunities, and educate them on development challenges and solutions;
3. Consider offering incentives to landlords who meet or exceed housing requirements, such as public recognition or reward; and
4. Using a simulation exercise such as “Bridges out of Poverty” to sensitize local residents to the issues faced by those in poverty and with special needs.

To its credit, Tompkins County is actively working to rectify one of the mentioned special needs housing issues – they’re working with TCAction to make the 23-bed Amici House homeless youth housing facility a reality. Not only did the legislature adjust the county’s loan terms with TCAction to help the non-profit build funds for the classrooms, daycare and housing, they’re also considering an award of $225,000 from the joint Cornell/City/County affordable housing fund to the Amici House project, as well as forgiveness of a previous $75,000 loan to TCAction.

As for trying to solve the other issues, it’s a matter of figuring out what will work. Tompkins planners are already looking at putting one of Danter’s recommendations to use – funds are slated to be set aside for a “housing summit” later this year.

Brian Crandall

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