ITHACA, N.Y. — Among Ithaca’s housing affordability issues, there are two big problems. One, there isn’t enough. Two, much of what does exist is in rough shape — outdated, obsolete, worn out and potentially unsafe.

The Ithaca Housing Authority (IHA) recognizes that. Not to be confused with INHS, the IHA is the city’s independent non-profit public housing agency. It receives subsidies from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and provides 341 subsidized housing units for lower-income households throughout Ithaca, serving over a thousand people. These include the Titus Towers senior apartments, Southview Gardens on the corner of South Plain and Center Streets, Overlook Terrace on Hector Street, and the Northside Apartments.

That last one is the focus of recent attention. IHA is seeking some significant changes to the way it operates, and to its current housing stock.

IHA to Partner with Private Developer

On the operational side, the public housing is changing to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Program. Launched in 2012, the program is essentially a tool that makes it possible for public housing agencies to partner with private developers, as a way to preserve and repair public housing. RAD allows up to 455,000 public housing units to change the type of federal housing assistance provided at the property, by converting to either Project-Based Vouchers (PBVs) or Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA). The RAD conversion allows a private non-profit or for-profit entity to own and manage the property, and allows the new owner to obtain other funding sources (like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or state/local grants) to repair the property.

It’s a priority for the HUD to change over public housing programs to RAD because renovations and expansions of public housing are completely dependent on the political whims of the presidential administration and Congress, and years of deferred maintenance across the country has resulted in a pretty big repair bill – $49 billion. Politicians don’t have the interest or appetite, and thousands of units become uninhabitable every year, forever lost from a community’s low-income housing stock in many cases. RAD allows organizations like the IHA to find interested private partners to pay for the renovations.

On the one hand, RAD is designed to protect existing residents and prevent displacement. Residents are invited to meetings beforehand, they are not re-screened, they have a right to return to their units after renovations and to comply with federal notification and relocation requirements, residents who pay 30% of their income towards rent will see no increases in rent, and fair housing and tenant organizational rights remain. The PBRAs would fill in the gap for those whose monthly incomes would otherwise cause rent to be more than 30% of their income, and after two years in their Northside housing, tenants could receive a voucher if requested and be able to move to other housing.

However, there are potential issues and concerns. Residents who do not pay 30% of their income towards rent may see increases over a period of 3 to 5 years. New private partners or owners may impose new rules or regulations, and relocation so that units can be renovated can be disruptive. The IHA and city government would need to maintain oversight and carefully monitor the new arrangement to ensure they don’t make life miserable for residents, who have few housing options given their modest incomes.

Here, the IHA will transfer ownership of its public housing to its non-profit arm, Cayuga Housing Development Corporation (CHDC). CHDC will then partner up with a private investor/developer, Bruce Levine of 3d Development Group LLC, as a “collaborator” in a shared organizational/ownership structure. Levine and his firm have built and renovated over 2,500 low- and moderate-income housing units throughout New York State, including recent “collaboration” involving phased renovations of 215 public housing units in Geneva, and public housing units in Auburn. The IHA properties would be their second buy-in to Tompkins County, after purchasing the Lehigh Crossing Apartments in Freeville back in 2008 from Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC).

Just as the Freeville apartments were renovated by 3d Development Group, so will the IHA properties. The Northside Apartments are the first phase. Celia Construction Inc. has been hired on as the general contractor, and architectural plans are being drafted up by Zausmer-Frisch, Scruton and Aggrawal Designers/Builders of Syracuse.

Two Avenues to the Future

So that’s the clear part of this. The not clear part is what happens next. Currently, the IHA, and its collaborators are exploring two options; “minimum scope” and “preferred scope”.

The minimum scope is a less extensive approach. It’s essentially a substantial renovation. Asbestos remediation, accessibility upgrades, interior repairs, roof repairs, boiler replacements, security upgrades, sustainability features and exterior repairs. A sprucing up of the existing apartments.

However, the preferred scope is much more extensive. It’s not so much a renovation as it is a reconstruction, a complete demolition and redesign of the Northside complex. According to the development team, years of deferred maintenance due to the lack of funds have created significant structural issues, where demolition and reconstruction of the more than 60-year-old units would be better for long-term habitability and affordability.

Currently, the Northside complex consists of 70 units – 11 two-bedroom, 33 three-bedroom, and 26 four-bedroom. The new plan would be a little denser, though it would still consist of two-story townhouses. It would have 82 units – 20 one-bedroom, 20 two-bedroom, 20 three-bedroom, and 22 four-bedroom. According to the 2016 Danter study of Tompkins County, the local housing deficit is most acute in the one-bedroom and two-bedroom range. Seventy of the units would rent at 60% area median income, and the remaining twelve at 80% area median income. Documentation provided to the city states that the later phases for renovations in Southside and West Hill would not involve adding units. Whether renovation or reconstruction, IHA would be kept on to manage the public housing units on behalf of itself as CHDC, and 3d Development.

Reconstruction of the entire Northside Apartment complex would not be cheap. The estimated price tag is $42.7 million, which would be paid for through a combination of public and private sources. Even a renovation would run into the millions, and so IHA and its partners are seeking $300,000 from the HUD funds awarded to the city to pay for some of the soft costs of development (non-materials and construction labor costs, like legal fees, engineering work, and environmental analyses).

The project will be the subject of more meetings in the near future. Along with meetings with IHA tenants and the IURA, the project is likely to seek funds from the Tompkins County’s Community Housing Development Fund (CHDF), the joint Ithaca-Dryden-Tompkins-Cornell affordable housing fund. The “preferred scope” reconstruction would likely be subject to planning board review by the city of Ithaca, given the brand new townhouse strings.

The timeline for the Northside Apartments is rather long, given the time for meetings, the need to apply for and obtain funds and time to relocate families for either renovation or reconstruction. Under the preferred scope, the new townhouses would be built out in phases from mid-2021 to mid-2024.

Brian Crandall

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