ITHACA, N.Y. — More than 100 people showed up for the kickoff of the Tompkins County Housing Summit Wednesday night to find the answer to multi-billion dollar questions that affect every person in the area: Are we going to let housing development in Ithaca happen by chance or by choice? What does “affordable housing” mean? How do we ’fix’ a housing crisis that is pushing people out of Ithaca? How do we create a community inclusive for everyone?

Martha Robertson, Tompkins County Legislator and Planning Committee Chairperson, said, “We are different than we were 10 years ago and we’re going to look different 10 years from now. So the question is ‘Will we choose our future or will we just let it happen to us by chance?’”

Keynote speaker Christopher Coes said that while there is no “silver bullet” answer to the housing crisis in Ithaca and Tompkins County, there are trends worth noting in cities where an effort is being made to make living affordable, accessible and ethical.

Couldn’t attend last night’s housing summit meeting? Don’t worry. Here are some of the most important and catchy quotes from the speakers:

1. “Transportation drives development.”

This comment was made by Christopher Coes, Vice President for Policy & External Affairs Smart Growth America, an urban planning advocacy group. Coes explained that building highways and roads communicates that an area wants development to involve cars. This “driveable subruban model” was affordable when gas was cheap and cheaper housing meant just driving a little further out from employment centers. But development patterns began to evolve by the mid 1990s, and away from layers of suburbia. As the economy changed from manufacturing-driven to knowledge-driven – “shutting down smokestacks, and chasing after talent.” Coes said the best thing a community to give to today’s employers isn’t a tax incentive, but a talented workforce.

2. “Today, 65% of individuals between 25 and 35 pick a place first that matches their lifestyle before they even find a job…that’s the dynamic that we have. Overwhelmingly, millennials are favoring walkable urban communities. 47% favor mid to large scale cities. 12% wanted driveable suburban lifestyles. 40% of millennials favor living in small college towns as a place they would prefer to live…a place like Tompkins.”

Coes noted it isn’t just young adults driving the trend to walkable areas. “While there’s a large population of students and millennials, there’s also a large baby boomer population. Today’s ‘adulthood Stage II’ baby boomers want vibrancy. They want this lifestyle. This idea that they have dependent on their natural, aging body, but not have active lifestyles, is something that they are rejecting.”
3. “When we look at the housing stock across America, we have a big problem, For the past 60, 70 years, we’ve been building bigger and bigger homes, for families that are smaller and smaller. There’s massive pent-up demand for smaller households and walkable spaces. One of the biggest gaps is in small towns like Ithaca and Tompkins County. When that (the gap) happens, you get gentrification.”
According to Coes, “There are two reasons for gentrification – increased construction costs accounts for 30%, and increased land values for 70%. It’s not that we don’t have enough land, we just don’t have enough walkable urban land.”

4. “Addressing affordability, housing or commercial space, there is no silver bullet. There is no one answer. There are strategies that deal with the problem. You have to do a suite of things, a milieu of options. You have to make real choices.” -Christopher Coes5. “We need to not only be thinking about affordable housing, but how to keep small businesses in their places. A lot of people move out to housing costs, but small business owners who can’t find affordable spaces to expand their places also move out. You can’t sit idly by and let the market do it, you have to have a social equity plan. Once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s hard to bring it back in.” -Christopher Coes

6. “38% of people, owners and renters combines, spend more than 30% of their income on housing. People have gotten used to that in many cases, but generally, when you’re spending more than 30%, you’re shortchanging something else in your households – whether it be retirement, college savings, or food on your table.”

That sobering statistic and comment came courtesy of Ed Marx, Director of Planning for Tompkins County. While Coes was more general with his talk, Marx provided specific statistics to highlight the county’s challenges.

7. “Occupancy in larger multi-unit buildings (apartments buildings with 24+ units) is 58% students. People who are renting and working, who are not students, are competing with students for housing. Many students are 3, 4 to a unit with parents paying the tab in many cases. They can outbid a working family for housing pretty quickly, which puts a stress on that family household.” -Ed Marx

8. “It costs 60 to 80% more to buy a house in Tompkins than in adjoining counties. As a result, 25% of our workers commute in from outside, and that has been increasing with time…25% of people commuting in means we don’t have the advantage of bringing them into this community – money being spent, time and efforts volunteered and donated. Their connection the the community isn’t want it could be. We have people who have been excited to come and work here, they look at the housing, and say ‘sorry not for me’. That makes it tougher for businesses in our community.” -Ed Marx

9. “What will drive the need for housing over the next 10 years? Employment growth, about 1% per year. Student enrollment increases, about 1% per year, though that’s a little less certain. Senior population is expected to grow 44% over the next 10 years. The preferences for walkable communities and access to transportation options, that’s what people are looking for in housing.” -Ed Marx

Marx said that according to the county’s newly-finished housing model for forecasting its needs, annually “we need 200 non-student rental units, 300 ownership units…homes and condominiums, if we can build them at a price people can afford. 50-100 market rate senior living units, 150-330 student housing beds, and special needs and supportive housing for populations that deserve our concern in our community.” -Ed Marx
10. “Cornell’s been looking at its housing needs, but just to summarize real quick, Maplewood will help a lot with graduate student housing needs, now they’ll be shifting to undergrads, renovating old units, and building new housing on campus to shift students into while that work is happening, and new housing to meet the needs of upperclassmen who want to stay on campus. They recognize the need to have housing to accommodate any increase in enrollment growth.”-Ed Marx

11. “You are not alone. This is not unique to Ithaca or to Tompkins County.”

Coes stressed that the community’s housing woes are not a unique problem. Communities large and small all across the country are battling their own housing crises.

Brian Crandall

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