ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca Voice published the first part of its new series, HOME, about Ithaca’s housing crisis last week. You can watch it here, or below, and stay tuned for part two coming soon.
Some readers were upset that we didn’t caption the entire video, as parts of it, like interviews, do not have text on the screen of the words being spoken. In the interest of providing access to the story to as many people as possible, here’s the transcript of the video. When part two is published, its transcript will be published as well.
Javon (0:00): It’s expensive to kind of be out on your own in this town, like Ithaca has a lot of resources. But for people that don’t qualify for the resources, and don’t have the resources it’s expensive.”
Alisha Tamarchenko: That’s Javon. She works in Ithaca—but she lives in Newfield. She can’t afford to live in Ithaca, despite working at the city’s biggest employer.
J: “I’m working at Cornell making $18 an hour and I still struggle to pay my rent, you know, and bills on time. So it’s just very hard. They cater to the college students, which, Okay, I get it, they can afford it, they get school grants and all that, but here sometimes damn it’s so expensive.
AT: Javon isn’t alone. Renting or buying a place to live in Ithaca is expensive; and it’s getting more expensive every year.
Peter Champelli (1:05): From The Ithaca Voice, this is Home. A series about the past, present, and future of Ithaca’s housing crisis. I’m Peter Champelli,
A: and I’m Alisha Tamarchenko.
A: Making housing more affordable in Ithaca is often a talking point from local politicians running for office, or local activists — but what really is affordable housing? And why is it such an important issue?
PC: Housing in Ithaca has an affordability issue.
PC (1:35): The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing that costs 30 percent or less of a household’s income. “Rent Burdened” means you pay more than that.
PC: 72 percent of renters in Ithaca fall into this rent burdened category. That’s compared to 67% in 2015, and 61% in 2010. So how did we get here?
AT: This is Ithaca in 1950. Around 50% of the city’s housing was renter-occupied; the population was just under 30,000.
PC: But the city looked different: The retail and other services on route 13 were not constructed yet. And in the late 1950s, Ithaca College began moving its campus from downtown to South Hill. (2:05)
Brian Crandall: “And that was great for Ithaca College. And it definitely made sense for the times. It just also really hurt downtown Ithaca.”
PC: That’s Brian Crandall, our development reporter.
BC: “Ithaca College is very emblematic of that suburbanized push of the 50s and 60s, because you saw they built an entirely new campus on South Hill, and they vacated a good chunk of downtown to do that. They used to occupy all sorts of small and large buildings throughout downtown Ithaca for residences and instruction halls.”
PC (2:35): In the ’60s, the number of renters jumped to about 55%.
AT: And some major changes happened to the city—specifically on the West End. In the late ’60s, the government demolished a bunch of the city’s more affordable housing in order to construct the flood control channel . This left Ithaca with a need to build new affordable housing units—which they designated to the West End.
Svante Myrick: “The community, both the city and the county, only allowed affordable housing to be built on the West Hill for about 40 years.”
AT (3:05): That’s Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca. There was also affordable housing built on East Hill around this time — but it’s in the town of Ithaca, far from the center of the city. Back to West Hill:
SM: “Right. So because it was that side of the water, there weren’t as many neighbors to object to the development of affordable subsidized housing. So you’d get down Floral Avenue on Chestnut and West Village. That is where most affordable housing units were built for… for… for decades.”
BC (3:35): “And as it turns out, when you segregate people away from needed services, and jobs, and you know, things that help them to have balanced, productive lives, it tends to exacerbate existing problems.”
A: Again, Brian Crandall. He said the city officials who planned/developed the west end probably just didn’t consider the fact that many residents didn’t have cars.
BC: “Definitely very auto centric. So they assume that people would just naturally drive not really considering the social and economic costs of maintaining vehicles. So that was a major factor in this, everything was very auto centric.”
A: The construction of the West Village units finished in 1971.
P: In the ’70s and ’80s these trends continued: The percent of the city that were renters continued to go up, and the overall population slowly went up, despite dipping in the ’70s. But the ’80s brought the real start of another main issue in Ithaca’s housing scene: the effect that students’ rent has on the community.
BC (4:10): “From at least the time period of the ’50s through about that 1981 period Cornell was content to kind of just cloister itself and they’re trying, you know, like, here is us, the city of Ithaca and the town of Ithaca, that is them.”
P: Around the ’80s, Cornell began developing in the community more in order to make Collegetown a better place to live.
BC: “Collegetown got so bad in the ’70s. That was when you know, the city and the state really started pressing Cornell to get involved. … You saw it go from being the low-cost place that students could live and not have to pay exorbitant amounts on campus to being where you had a very wealthy clientele.”
PC (4:45): But, that development had an adverse effect. As Collegetown started attracting wealthier renters and homeowners, many students began looking for other places in Ithaca to live.
BC: “And start interacting with the neighborhoods. And the town and gown tension started to arise.”
PC: This takes us to the ’90s: The city reached an all time high, with 68% of its residents renting. The average person spent more than 30% of their income on rent, which meant their housing was not affordable.
AT (5:15): And in the ’90s, the city saw another shift: Ithaca became a more desirable place to live and there was much more competition for housing.
BC: “The students have to live somewhere, and they were competing with the general population.”
A: Again, Brian Crandall.
BC: And students are more likely to rent by the bedroom, you know, if I get three kids together to, you know, each pay $750 a month on an apartment, and they’re going to so that’s $2250 total. Their buying power is just so much greater than that of working in lower middle-class households and eventually pushes them out.”
JoAnn Cornish (5:47): “I think with the student market, it kind of controls where the rest of the rents are. And I can think that I can say that that’s one of the reasons that the rents continue to go up.”
AT: That’s JoAnn Cornish, the city of Ithaca’s Director of Planning & Development.
JC: “Students typically whether they have student loans or they have family money or whatever. We’ll pay those prices for, you know, for the apartments that are at the higher end of the spectrum.”
PC: So families started to get really affected by the changing rent scene in the 90s. And this led to a continuously growing rate of people who couldn’t afford their rent in Ithaca. In 2000, 57% of Ithacans were rent-burdened, and the percentage of the city that were renters went up to 74%.
JC (6:34): “In the 2000s, of course, we had, you know, the recession, but one of the things that did happen is, you know, the city was really in a bad financial situation. And the mayor, then Alan Cohen, encouraged and we actually, you know, went out proactively seeking the big boxes to come to Ithaca.”
PC: JoAnn said Home Depot was the first big box Ithaca got to come to town—and it allowed the city to continue investing in the housing market.
JC: And what that did is it allowed the tax base to increase. So we did begin to see more investment in the housing market, just because our tax base was improving.
PC (7:13): But this investment in the housing market didn’t reduce the percentage of rent-burdened people in the city. In 2010, 61% were rent-burdened; and the issue was especially bad for specific neighborhoods such as Collegetown.
PC: And that brings us to today.
AT (7:13): Wait. Let’s pause for a second. We just looked at how housing in Ithaca has developed over the past 70 years. But how have the demographics of the neighborhoods shifted during that time?
JC: “I’m a sixth generation of my family is one of the original Black families and Indigenous families who settled in this area back in 1800s. So our community, our village used to reside on the south side.”
AT: That’s Jordan Clemons. He’s the founder of the Unbroken Promise Initiative, a local non-profit raising money to develop a localized economy on the West End.
JC (8:00): “So that was black owned. That was where our village resided. That’s where you have Southside Community Center. Then, you know, as time went on, you had Black family started to settle over in the north side area. …
PC: To fully understand how the history of housing in Ithaca has affected Black residents and families specifically — let’s rewind.
AT (8:30): In some cities, housing discrimination in the 40s, 50s, and 60s was super explicit and well documented — but in other cities like Ithaca, it was more subtle.
PC: In 1959, a group of Ithacans formed the Council for Equality. Some of these Ithacans were Beverly J Martin, an influential local educator who one of our elementary schools is named after, and James Gibbs, the very first director of Southside Community Center.
AT: The Council for Equality’s mission was to “study, improve, and change discrimination on whatever level it is found” in Ithaca, specifically in Education, Employment, and — Housing.
PC (9:05): By this point, it was illegal to discriminate in selling or renting homes; New York State passed the Metcalf-Baker Fair Housing Law in 1961, becoming just the sixth state to ban discrimination in housing. But realtors in Ithaca were still discriminating against Black homeowners and renters.
AT: For one, there was a massive difference in the quality of homes between white and non-white Ithaca residents. According to a 1963 Ithaca Journal article, 38% of non-white residents in Ithaca lived in deteriorated or dilapiDated homes or apartments in 1960 — compared to 12% of white residents.
PC (9:40): And the Council for Equality’s archives describe the housing discrimination that was going on. In the council’s public announcement from October 23, 1962, they write that, quote, “[Black people] have had considerable difficulty locating housing. One woman, looking for an apartment, was turned down six successive times before something was found for her.” unquote.
AT: They say in another report that the usual excuse landlords gave was quote, “‘my neighbors’ might not like it. We found that in at least one case that this really meant that the owner did not like it.” unquote.
PC (10:14): They did a lot of work to try and combat this — they educated realtors on the Fair Housing Law, and they published incidents of discrimination in the Ithaca Journal and other publications. After they still had little success, the committee chair eventually had the white members of the group call landlords on behalf of Black homeowners and renters.
AT: The council eventually disbanded in 1968, and with it, the Housing Search Committee. And after the 60’s, the other changes in the housing and rental markets that we talked about earlier — the increase in Cornell’s development; the increase in students competing for places to live; and the increase in rent prices — led to gentrification.
JC (10:50): “It wasn’t until mid to late, too late, not mid to late 90s, early 2000s. Were you seeing gentrification start to send in and what happened was people who owned or rented down in the flats or now um, are now bought out, they were priced out. And or, you know, their rent leases weren’t renewed. So, landlords began to make it very clear that they were looking to no longer provide housing for low income welfare recipients, but they were targeting the students. And so where did that push us to? Um, you know, that pushed us to the West Hill.”
PC: Now let’s break down one of the ways gentrification actually happened in Ithaca. Again, here’s Brian Crandall.
BC: “The tax assessor cannot, he can’t cheat the system. In a sense, he has to be fair.”
AT: Brian says, when it comes to homeowners, the process of gentrification can start with taxes. If one home in an area sells for more than it did in the past, the other homes are assessed at a higher value.
BC (11:25): “And if he sees that a similar house that sold for $150k, you know, in 2005, just sold for $320k. He’s got to assess the house next door that’s had the same owner through that whole time period. […] he can’t put them on different pedestals, it would be illegal. And that increases the tax burden, because if I’m paying, you know, $3500 per $100,000 assessed, which is about what it is in the city of Ithaca, if my house was, you know, assessed in 2005, at that $150. […] So I’m looking at about $5200 a year in taxes in 2005.”
PC (12:03): A higher value means higher taxes, which means more and more of people’s income going to taxes.
BC: “And if I’m being assessed at $320 now, at that $3500, I’m looking at $11,500 in taxes, so that’s an extra, you know, $6000 plus in taxes that I have to pay, you know, versus about 15 years ago. And a lot of people’s incomes haven’t really increased at that same, you know, percentage rate. […] And so that is displacing working class households from neighborhoods like Fall Creek, and we’re increasingly seeing it now in Northside and South Side. And in South Side […] you’re forcing out families of color. And the people who are, you know, buying the houses and moving in, they’re often white.”
PC (12:50): And as the prices of homes went up in Ithaca, so did the prices of rent.
AT: And the results of that process?
SM: Both the South Side, the north side has been gentrified.
AT: Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick.
SM: “Now, what’s driving that? I mean, it’s two factors, one, the historical locking out of Black families from economic opportunities, and the ripple effects of that have means that they are more likely to be dependent on affordable housing. And then two, the fact that the community is both the city and the county only allowed affordable housing to be built on the West Hill for about 40 years.”
AT (13:30): Between 1990 and 2010, Census records show the Black population of Southside decreased by 49%, and in Fall Creek by 26% — and the Black population of the West End increased by 163%.
JC: “That’s pretty much what gentrification has done.
JC: “And how does that affect access? How does that create a barrier? Well, when you’re in the flats, you’re able to walk to a Wegmans, you’re able to walk to a P&C, which is right in the neighborhood, you know, now that you’re on West Hill, you’re on the other side on the inlet, the other side of the hill, it’s a journey to get to now access your resources, because you only really have a Dandy Mart, and you have a liquor store.”
AT (14:11): And from 1990 to now, the black population in all of Ithaca has fallen by over 11%.
AT: Which, after our rewind, brings us back to the present.
PC: In 2019’s census estimates, Ithaca had its largest total population ever, but it also had its lowest black population since 1970 — just under 6% of the city’s population. The city was more than 74% made up of renters; and 72% percent of the population was rent burdened.
PC: So what solutions are being proposed by the city government, nonprofit developers like INHS, and activists?
AT: Tune in next week for part two of Home, from the Ithaca Voice.