ITHACA, N.Y. — Housing has been a key issue in Tompkins County for years. The county has studied the needs of residents, held a summit and solicited feedback from local leaders and the community. Recently, the county released the Tompkins County Housing Strategy, a detailed plan to address the continued demand for housing.

The strategy focuses on several areas of needed housing, including supportive housing/special needs beds, senior housing, workforce units and affordable units across the board.

Read on for a breakdown of the Tompkins County Housing Strategy.

1 — What is the Tompkins County Housing Strategy?

2 — What does the need for housing look like in Tompkins County?

3 — What is the strategy?

4 — Where will all these units go?

5 — What are next steps?

6 — Learn more about the strategy and housing in Tompkins County

1 — What is the Tompkins County Housing Strategy?

The county has drawn up a strategy based on the principle: “Tompkins County should be a place where housing is affordable, safe, energy efficient and appealing.”

The Housing Strategy is a plan to address housing needs in the county through 2025. Housing has been a major focus for years, and the Housing Strategy is a way for Tompkins County to address issues of affordability, availability and quality of units. Over the next eight years, the county aims to add at least 4,000 units to meet the demand.

To create the draft Housing Strategy, the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability has drawn on the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the 2015-16 Housing Needs Assessment, the fall Housing Summit and has gathered input from local leaders and the community.

The strategy will fall in line with other county initiatives like the Comprehensive Plan by keeping the county on course to meet sustainability goals. The Housing Strategy states it will promote energy efficient housing.

The strategy also draws upon “lessons learned” from past housing strategies. An Affordable Housing Needs Assessment in 2006 set a target for 4,000 new housing unites between 2005 and 2014, with 54 percent being affordable for households earning less than 80 percent of area median income. There were 3,200 units built during this period. However, less than 10 percent of those units met the affordability goal.

Ten years after the first, Tompkins County completed another Housing Needs Assessment. The 2016 version looked at more segments of the housing market, including students, seniors and people in need of supportive housing.

2 — What does the need for housing look like in Tompkins County?

The 2015-16 Housing Needs Assessment, which had more than 4,500 respondents, looked at what types of housing people want. Some key areas include for sale housing, rental housing, student housing, senior housing and supportive housing.

Many people who want to move to Tompkins County have said they are looking for housing that is in walking distance to shopping, employment, recreation and schools. Many also said they would like to be close to public transit.

The Housing Needs Assessment showed a high demand for rental units between $800 and $1,300 per month as well as affordable ownership units under $250,000.

For a detailed analysis of the Housing Needs Assessment, read our previous four-part breakdown of the Tompkins County Housing Needs Assessment by Contributor Brian Crandall.

3 — What is the strategy?

The Housing Strategy has focused on a few key areas of needed housing — supportive housing/special needs beds, senior housing, workforce units and student beds.

While the need for workforce units may be easy to see, there are other areas that are less visible and more difficult to quantify. For example, as the housing strategy document says, people in need of supportive housing may end up couch surfing or homeless, or retired seniors who cannot find housing to meet their needs may move out of the county without leaving a job vacancy to signal their departure, or they may end up staying in a house that is not suited to their needs.

Based on the Housing Needs Assessment, the county set the following unit goals:

Supportive housing/special needs beds — This category of housing combines affordable housing with support services. It does not include senior housing. This category is important to reduce homelessness and housing instability for vulnerable populations. There are several projects in the works in this category:

  1. Amici House (TCAction): 23 units for homeless or vulnerable young people, ages 18 to 25.
  2. Endeavor House (Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources): Four beds for men re-entering the community from jail or prison.
  3. Ithaca ReUse Center Expansion: 24 units for individuals transitioning from homelessness.
  4. Lakeview Ithaca (Lakeview Health Services): 25 units for individuals with psychiatric difficulties, 25 additional units for low- to moderate-income households.

Senior housing — Many seniors currently live in typical workforce housing, but there is a local need for more subsidized, affordable senior housing as well as a Medicaid Assisted Living Program. The strategy states that though the Housing Needs Assessment indicated a desire for more market-rate senior housing with services like assisted living and skilled nursing, the New York State Department of Health has found that Tompkins County is “over-bedded” in terms of skilled nursing facilities. Therefore, the county is focusing on affordable options for seniors.

There is not Medicaid Assisted Living Program in the county. Waitlists for seniors who need publicly subsidized independent living apartments are currently six months to five years. Based on current wait lists, there is a need of 100 to 200 units. The strategy adds that incorporating universal design elements and rehabilitating existing units will help people live independently longer.

Workforce housing — Tompkins County has a goal of developing 580 rental and ownership units per year, adding up to a total of 5,800 new units through 2025.

Student housing — Enrollment continues to grow at Ithaca College and Cornell University. Students currently occupy 58 percent of large apartment property units. Though students have a large impact on the local housing market, the housing strategy is not focused on producing student housing. The strategy acknowledges that Cornell is making strides to add more student housing. The new Maplewood complex will provide 512 graduate and professional beds by Fall 2018, and Cornell University has also announced plans to add 2,000 new undergraduate beds on campus.

4 — Where will all these units go?

The strategy emphasizes the benefits of “nodal development,” which can be defined as community or hub that includes places to live and work, shop and access services. Participants of the Housing Needs Assessment indicated they want to live in walkable neighborhoods with a variety of transportation options.

The Housing Strategy breaks down where units will go into the following categories. 

  • Urban core — 350 units/year
  • Established and emerging nodes — 50 to 100 units/year
  • Rural centers — 30 units/year
  • Other locations — 100 to 150 units/year

The strategy states that after reviewing existing plans, zoning codes and other information, a “conservative” estimate is that more than twice the proposed amount of units could be accommodated in these locations.

While new housing units are needed, existing units will obviously house the majority of the county’s residents. Since most of the existing units in Tompkins County are more than 50 years old, many will need improvements to meet residents’ needs as well as the county’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

5 — What are next steps?

Megan McDonald, senior planner in the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability, presented the housing strategy to the public in May. There, she said while the county does not build housing, it can work with people and help with proposals that meet housing needs.

“We need housing that better matches up with the needs of our community,” McDonald said at the presentation. “Hopefully will move quickly to implementation stage.”

To implement the plan, the county will take a three-pronged approach to meet housing targets, focusing on new housing units, existing housing units and collaboration. There are a number of ideas under each area of implementation. Under new housing units, the county will encourage the development of new housing units that fall within their targets for housing types and development areas. Implementing the strategy will take a lot of collaboration between local government and the community.

The plan is headed to Tompkins County Legislature for endorsement July 6.

6 — Learn more about the strategy and housing in Tompkins County

Interested in housing? Explore our in-depth series, “No Place to Call Home.”

Read or download the full Tompkins County Housing Strategy below:

Tompkins County Housing Strategy by Kelsey O’Connor on Scribd

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.