This opinion piece was written by Theresa Alt, Peter Bardaglio and Krys Cail for the Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development. To submit an opinion piece to The Ithaca Voice, contact us at tips@ithacavoice.com.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick’s announcement regarding the possible redevelopment of the Green Street parking garage, replacing it with a conference center and hundreds of apartments, has once again raised the issue of affordable housing. The mayor has said on Facebook that at least some of the 350 apartments will be affordable. He has also pointed out that by putting new housing on that site no one will be displaced.

In his words, “The best way to build without gentrifying is to build new housing without demolishing old housing.”

We applaud the mayor’s vision for this project. Much, of course, depends on the final plans for the project, which are in their earliest stage. Our hope is that this project will carve out a new direction for the city in its thinking about the issues of gentrification and affordable housing.

The Tompkins County Housing Summit last fall opened up a crucial conversation that was long overdue. The County’s Housing Strategy issued in June of this year laid out more of the statistical data on needs for special types of housing and also pointed to geographic areas for building. Now it may be time to revisit all aspects of both discussions.

One of the important take-aways from the conference was that transportation and housing must be considered together, to meet the lifestyle choices of middle-income residents and the unmet needs of lower-income people. Adequate public transportation is essential to making life possible for those with fewer resources and to reducing the use of fossil fuels in the County. Less frequent car use also reduces the need for parking spaces in Downtown and Collegetown, freeing up land for more effective and more attractive uses.

In addition, the call at the conference for removing impediments to walkability and affordability, including Federal financing guidelines, parking requirements, excessive approval processes, NIMBYism, and restrictive zoning, is also worth remembering as the discussion about the plans for the Green Street project goes forward.

Furthermore, we second the participants’ call for local legislation to forbid discrimination against tenants based on source of income, e.g. landlords refusing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers. We agree, too, with the need for universal design to make more housing accessible to people with disabilities.

A key issue that deserves far more attention is the need for building better-insulated housing and greater use of renewable energy for heat and electricity. These changes would make housing more affordable for low-income people as well as reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, higher standards could be required by municipal building codes, which are legally allowed to exceed the requirements of the State code. Where the existing codes are not being adequately enforced with regard to energy efficiency, enforcement can be improved.

All of these conversations need more participation by low-income residents, who have often been ignored. Building trades people should also be part of the conversation; they know their own need for fair pay and the necessity of training the next generation of skilled craftspeople.

Here are some of the ideas that deserve further discussion:

1. Zoning could allow denser housing in urbanized areas, and drop or reduce off-street parking requirements there. Denser housing, properly planned for, cuts commute time, car costs, and wasted energy. As reliance on cars is reduced, the community can repurpose parking lots for infill housing which is much more attractive than parking lots.

2. Land trusts provide another possible way forward. They are already used by  Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, but they could be expanded. They involve subsidizing construction or rehabilitation and selling the homes at affordable prices to moderate-income buyers, with a proviso limiting the price at which the home may be sold in the future, thus guaranteeing that the housing remains affordable. Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca now provide lower assessments on such homes, so that the property taxes are more affordable (and do not impose costs that will never be recouped because the house cannot be sold at a profit). Other municipalities and school districts would do well to adopt similar provisions.

3. Small, efficient structures that meet more demanding energy standards are cost- effective to build, because they are far cheaper to maintain, paying for initial cost in relatively few years. Attractive tiny houses can be built for $140,000 to $175,000), as Buzz Dolph has demonstrated in our own community. Container houses are a variant on tiny houses, taking advantage of solid shipping containers
as the shell; they can be well-insulated, though that adds significantly to the cost. Trailers, too, can be weatherized.

4. In addition, the Industrial Development Agency could adopt a policy to grant PILOTs or tax abatements for affordable and not for high-end housing.

5. Municipalities could zone to make affordable housing a requirement. Inclusionary zoning would require a portion of new housing to be affordable. Incentive zoning would allow exceptions to the zoning code such as more stories or reduced minimum offstreet parking requirements in return for a part of new housing being affordable.

Most of the suggestions mentioned above address achieving quality housing at lower than usual cost. Obviously, money is still needed but, if the Federal government will no longer provide subsidies for housing, we need to find other ways to secure financing. New York State should use its taxes on high incomes to build public housing. Political will is the main barrier to expanding affordable housing. Without it, solutions will be difficult to achieve. With it, however, significant steps can be taken. These are just a few ideas that deserve a closer look; certainly there are others. Now is the time for community wide conversation about how we solve our housing problems, and the roles developers, municipalities, affordable housing agencies and advocates, and the community take in bringing solutions to the built environment. Perhaps the Green Street project can help accelerate this process.

Theresa Alt, Peter Bardaglio, Krys Cail for the Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development

Theresa Alt, talt@igc.org – 607-273- 3009, 607-280- 7649
Peter Bardaglio, pbardaglio@gmail.com – 607-229- 6183
Krys Cail, krys.cail@gmail.com