ITHACA, N.Y. — At its meeting this afternoon, the county’s Planning, Development and Environmental Quality (PDEQ) Committee will take a vote to endorse the county’s new housing strategy, with the strong likelihood the document will take a trip to the full legislature for approval this July.

The strategy is the culmination of efforts from county staff, officials and local interest groups in creating some kind of plan for addressing the county’s housing needs through 2025. The reasoning is fairly simple – the county is an economic bright spot in upstate New York, but there hasn’t been housing built to satisfy growing demand, especially for lower-income or vulnerable groups. This has led to longer commutes, affordability issues, and concerns of gentrification in some neighborhoods. The Voice’s Kyle Friend has covered these issues and impacts in extensive detail as part of our “No Place to Call Home” housing series.

The county is not a housing developer, and doesn’t want to be a housing developer. But it hopes to guide development in terms of location and program mix, and tracking these results to check whether or not the county is achieving or falling short of its goals. This includes affordable housing, senior housing, special needs groups, energy efficient housing, and encouraging a variety of home options, including improvements to existing housing stock.

According to county records, it fell well short of its goals in the 2006 Master Plan; aiming for 4,000 units of housing, only about 80% of that, or 3,200, were built. Less than 10% of that was affordable housing, virtually all of it helped through county grant funds.

Some of the targets being set with the new housing strategy include 100-200 senior housing units and a Medicaid Assisted Living Program facility (not skilled care, which the state department of health says is “over-bedded”). On top of that, the county sees a need for 200 new rental units per year that would be affordable to those making 100% AMI ($53,000) or less, and 380 new for-sale units annually, including 80 condominiums. With regards to student housing, Tompkins planners describe a need for up to 1,500 student beds over the next several years, although that is not a focus of their strategy. It’s a tall order to have 580+ units per year, although not impossible – 575 units were permitted in Tompkins County last year.

The way the county plans to promote the housing it wants comes from four different angles:

  • The first, “supporting targeted new development” involves identifying sites best suited for new housing, and soliciting developers through requests for proposals, or by helping to make these properties shovel-ready for the kind of projects they want. This component also involves helping developers find and apply for affordable housing grants.
  • The second highlights issues with zoning. The count wants to have communities review and revise their zoning, and to figure out ways to streamline their review processes. The county believes clearer zoning regulations and simpler permit processes would result in less uncertainty for developers, making it easier for projects to obtain financing. Inclusionary zoning seems pretty much dead in the water, as the county doesn’t seem to know if the community will support incentives for affordable housing, or if will even be effective. Done wrong, an inclusionary ordinance could actually result in less housing, if the burden is too great for the incentives offered.
  • The third component looks at incentives for new development. Financing is often hard to get, especially for affordable housing, where only 1 in 3 projects may get funding in each cycle. The county would like to explore expanding the IDA to not just promote jobs-producing projects, but affordable housing plans as well. This would make mixed-market or all-affordable proposals eligible for abatements, and would reduce some of their expenses, making them more likely to receive state and federal grants for construction.
  • The last part focuses on existing housing. Existing unit strategies include the encouragement of rehabs (especially from rentals to owner-occupied, energy efficiency moves, and enabling housing to allow residents to “age-in-place”), code enforcement and fair housing enforcement, so that existing housing is safe and non-discriminating. Airbnb is still a tricky issue, so expect some tweaks to regulations on what constitutes rentals, hotels and legal occupancy.

To encourage involvement, the county would seek to establish a housing interest group for sharing ideas, a virtual housing office to supply information about housing data, programs and landlord/tenant rights, and partner with groups such as TCAD and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance to document and promote housing needs and goals. The county would monitor and track units, which the Ithaca Voice already does.

If approved by the legislature, the next step will be resource allocation. That means figuring out who can tackle what, and how quickly they can get the job done. This is but the next step of many, but if the county is going to get its affordability issues in check, it needs to start somewhere, and this strategy might be it.

Brian Crandall

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