DRYDEN, N.Y. – The Town of Dryden wants to know, are its houses up to standard?

That’s not the easiest question to answer. Not including the villages of Freeville and Dryden, the town contains 5,300 homes. You also have to define what “standards” are. Still, cognizant that at least some of the bungalows and old farmhouses around town are in rough shape, the town decided to pursue a Housing Conditions Survey to try and get a better grasp of the situation.

“It’s a couple of goals,” said Town of Dryden Planning director Ray Burger. “It’s good to get a periodic look at housing stock, and it’s a gatekeeper to pursue funding for housing stock rehabilitation.”

That last one if arguably the more important one. If you want to fix up dilapidated housing in your town, low-income and moderate-income families often lack the financial means to do it on their own – tens of thousands of dollars for a new roof isn’t something many of them can afford. To try and help them achieve the funds for new roofs and repairs, the town can potentially apply for grant dollars from the U.S. government and assist qualified households. The most common form of grant funds is CDBGs, Community Development Block Grants. But the government doesn’t just throw those to any town on the map; they want proof it’s needed. A certain number of dilapidated houses are needed to qualify, and an identified waiting list of homeowners with modest incomes who could benefit from the grant.

In order to prove this, the Housing Conditions Survey was required. New York State was kind enough to fund the survey with a $24,900 state grant awarded in December 2017, and given that town planners are busy enough as it is, the town solicited bids and from there hired a consultant, Thoma Development Consultants of Cortland, to conduct the survey.

As Thoma conducted the survey, they limited themselves a few ways. They focused on single-family and two-family homes. No larger apartment buildings or mobile home parks were included because CDBG grants require occupants to own their property. Also, homes that were recently built were left off the list of properties to inspect, on the assumption that something built in the past few years would likely be up to standard. A few very hard-to-reach houses, not visible from public right-of-ways, were also excluded. In the end, Thoma ended up assessing 3,260 homes.

By their criteria, when looking at a house, its features are divided into three component categories – primary (foundation, exterior walls, roof), secondary (siding, roofing, porches/stairs, chimneys) or mechanical (windows/doors, electrical). From there, components are viewed as sound (no problems), minor repair, major repair, or critical, which means a total component replacement is needed or a structural risk is present.  Moderately substandard homes have 1-2 defects that can be repaired for “reasonable” cost, severely substandard homes have 3+ defects that can be repaired for a “reasonable” cost, or one critical defect. Dilapidated means that the structure is in extremely bad shape and likely not salvageable.

For the sake of example – say you have an old farmhouse with a rotting but usable porch, and a couple of cracked windows. That would be moderately substandard, since it has two components that can be repaired. If the foundation is cracked as well, then it’s severely substandard because you have three more component in bad shape but repairable. Your neighbor has a leaning chimney he never uses, but otherwise his house is in good shape; that is still considered severely substandard because the leaning chimney is a critical defect, even if it’s the only defect.

So as for the actual results? Well, at first glance, they’re rather alarming. Thirty-eight percent of the properties assessed qualified as “substandard” housing, including 46% of two-family homes, and over 90% of the mobile homes that Thoma assessed. Over 14% of the units – roughly one in seven homes – was severely substandard or dilapidated. Roughly speaking, the rise in substandard proportions with larger units reflects the likelihood that renters are more likely to live in substandard housing. With larger multi-unit buildings and mobile home parks left out, it’s likely the numbers for poor quality housing are much higher in quantity and potentially in proportion of the town’s total housing stock.

“It was surprisingly high,” said Burger. “I think a contributing part of that is that the survey criteria are skewed against mobile homes, but that’s a presumption on my part. This is based on the criteria, not a dictionary definition of standard and substandard. The algorithm may throw what we think of as standard housing into the substandard housing. The consultant related to me that 38% is actually good. A lot of upstate communities are above 50%.”

Another thing to consider is the location of dilapidated housing. A lightly anonymized map was made to mark where the assessed substandard housing was in town. Short answer: all over the place, with some modest exceptions for some of the newer, upscale housing subdivisions in areas like Ellis Hollow.

“The takeaway for us was that it’s widespread, it’s a town-wide problem. No one should feel liike they live in an exceptional neighborhood, one way or the other. Any remedies we apply will need to be applied throughout the town,” said Burger.

It may not be the happiest set of results, but the town looks much more likely to qualify for CDBG funds for housing rehabilitation. The town board met last week to look over the results (Burger noted that they too were surprised by the high percentage of substandard housing) and begin the process of having the planning department assemble a grant application. It likely won’t be ready in time for the next application period in September, but could potentially be submitted for consideration next year.

Burger was optimistic that Dryden could obtain grant funds in the future. “In context, this is one of the healthier communities. We appreciate having good data, and there is a desire to move forward to rehabilitate some of these homes.”

Brian Crandall

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