ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s been something of a development dilemma at 402 South Cayuga Street in the city of Ithaca, just south of downtown. The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA), which owns the site, would like to see the vacant spear of land redeveloped, after an apartment building on the site was damaged in a fire and demolished in the early 2000s. But they haven’t had the best of luck.

After a competitive process in early 2013, the IURA entered into a tentative agreement with INHS to develop affordable housing on the site – four townhomes, owner-occupied. INHS went through the planning board, and the project was approved, but then rising construction costs forced INHS to reconsider their plan. They said they could still move forward, but as affordable rentals.

Meanwhile, an Ithacan couple proposed four townhome units of (eventually) owner-occupied housing, but after some examining of the finances, only one unit could feasibly be designated as affordable, the other three would have been market rate. Plus, the affordable unit would have needed grant money.

Things fell through for both proposals. INHS couldn’t feasibly do affordable owner-occupied homes on the property, and returned the grant money they had been awarded for their project. Meanwhile, the market-rate proposal wasn’t awarded grant funding for its affordable housing component, which meant that all the units would have been market-rate. That didn’t mesh with the IURA’s affordable housing objectives for the property, and it too fell to the wayside.

Now, another organization has expressed interest in developing affordable housing on the property – the Tompkins-Cortland chapter of Habitat For Humanity (TCHFH). The non-profit organization has been building affordable homes in the region since the 1980s, though never before in Ithaca city. The group has received approval to build two townhouses on Morris Street in Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood, which they expect to begin construction of in April 2017.

“We became aware of the property a few months ago, through a staff member at IURA,” said Shannon MacCarrick, Executive Director for TCHFH. “What’s enticing is that it offers us the chance to build decent, affordable Habitat homes within the City of Ithaca. Finding affordable, buildable land in the City has long been a challenge for us. We certainly have lots of applicants who are interested in becoming Habitat homeowners but they want to live in the City; until now, we haven’t been able to meet that demand.”

As with the other groups, to make the finances work, MacCarrick notes that TCHFH will need to apply for affordable housing grants, and possibly incorporate corporate fellowships and individual donations. The project would be built with a mix of professional contractors and volunteer labor, which helps keep some of the costs down.

“We use volunteers whenever possible and involving the community in our work is a big part of how we spread awareness about the need for affordable housing, and engage the community in becoming part of the solution.  Volunteers have always been a unique but key part of Habitat’s mission and the way we accomplish our work.  We rely on volunteers for so many different things, from architectural drawings to family support, electrical work to hammer swinging,” said MacCarrick.

Like the previous proposals, TCHFH’s concept calls for four townhouses, and the general approach is the same; about the biggest immediate difference from the other two plans is that there are no garages on the lowest level, the floor tucked into the hillside. If the renders are any indication, they’ll be colorful.

Typically, Habitat homes are affordable and owner-occupied – families contribute “sweat equity” by participating in the construction crew as part of their path to home ownership. The homes are typically geared to those making up to 60% of area median income, or about $32k/year.

The process is still at an early stage, and TCHFH is still determining its feasibility. But, MacCarrick is optimistic. “Although the site presents some challenges (slope, etc.), the location is pretty ideal – we couldn’t ask for a much better spot than Cayuga Street.  It not only provides great visibility for our organization, but would be a convenient site for our volunteers and would provide the homeowners with easy access to downtown, the TCAT, {and} enrollment in ICSD.”

Brian Crandall

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