The Ithaca Voice has published HOME Part 2, the second and final part of its series on the Ithaca housing crisis.

The link to watch the video is here, or you can view it on this page below. Below the video is a transcript to follow along with the video. Here is the link to the HOME Part 1 video, along with the accompanying transcript.

Transcript:

Genevieve Rand: Housing is being discussed as a commodity from the perspectives of people who own it and invest in it, rather than being discussed as a human right, and a health issue from the people who live in that housing

Peter Champelli: From The Ithaca Voice, this is Home. A series about the past, present, and future of Ithaca’s housing crisis.

Alisha Tamarchenko: In the last episode we looked at the history of housing in Ithaca. This brings us to today.

Paul Mazzarella: We find ourselves in a situation where Ithaca and Tompkins County are a relatively high-priced housing market compared to the rest of upstate New York. It’s made it difficult for working people to be able to afford to both buy or rent homes in this area.

PC: That’s Paul Mazzarella, the former executive director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, or INHS. He’s spent his entire professional life working in the city planning and Community Development fields.

AT: Ok, let’s refresh, what does “affordable” mean?

PM: 13:03 – I think you’ve put your finger on a really difficult problem, which is a lot of people talk about affordable housing, without really knowing what it means. […] the most general definition is that no matter what your income is, you shouldn’t be paying more than 30% of your income for housing. A lot of people are paying way more than that.

Martha Robertson: … meaning you’re having to devote much more of your resources than is appropriate […] for housing just to keep a roof over your head.

AT: That’s Martha Robertson, a Tompkins County Legislator. She’s been serving in local government for the past 21 years.

MR: And many, many people in our community do that. They are forced to spend more on housing, and therefore scrimp on things like education, things like transportation or food even, or saving for their kids’ future.

AT: As Paul Mazzarella said, housing is considered “affordable” when a person spends less than 30 percent of their income on it. As we know 72 percent of Ithacans fall into the “rent burdened” category meaning they’re paying way more than that.

But there is another statistic we can look at too, Area Median Income, or AMI. AMI, is the midpoint in an area’s income distribution, it is the determining factor for income brackets and helps put things into perspective a little bit more. Get ready for some numbers here. 

P: According to the US Department of Housing and Development, or HUD, low income is anyone below 80 percent AMI. In Ithaca, for a family of 1, or a single person, that number is 50,200. That means to be considered “moderate income” or above the 80 percent figure in Ithaca, you must earn more than $50,200 a year.

A: $50,200 divided by 12 is around $4,183

That would be the monthly income for the lowest earning person in the “moderate income” bracket. 30 percent of $4,183 is $1,255. Meaning $1,255 a month in rent is the “affordable” rate for the lowest “moderate” earner.

 If housing is priced to be in the “affordable range” for “moderate income” residents, even at the lowest end of that bracket, that rent is still too expensive for a lot of people. 

AMI changes depending on family size, but the figures still puts “moderate income” at an almost unachievable rate for a lot of people in Ithaca. 

PC: And, in calculations done by the Ithaca Voice, only 26 percent of housing in the city is set aside specifically for those people below the 80 percent mark, including section 8 vouchers that bring higher rents down to an affordable rate. 

PC: So Ithaca has a problem. There is a lack of affordable housing, and many people in the low-income and moderate-income bracket are paying way more than they should for housing, or they are forced to completely move outside the city. So, why? Why is there a lack of affordable housing?

Svante Myrick: It’s just really expensive to build the stuff. And so for somebody to build it, and then rent it for low rent means that they would be losing money.

PC: That’s Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick

AT: For most developers, housing is a business, they’re building for the profit. It’s expensive to build, and to then sell or rent rooms at a low price, would mean they would be losing money. Brian Crandall, our development reporter, told us it’s only viable if the developers get subsidies or tax credits.

Brian Crandall: The affordable housing developers have to close the gap somehow. And it ends up being a combination of public and private funds.

AT: That funding provides developers with the money that would allow them to lower rent or lower the purchase price of the house. Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, or INHS, is a non profit and the biggest affordable housing developer in the area and they have a financial model that works. 

PC: This is Johanna Anderson, the current executive director of INHS.

Johanna Anderson: We help low and moderate income individuals obtain and maintain affordable housing. So whether somebody is renting or looking to purchase, or looking to maintain their current home that they own, we have services available to them.

PM: Especially in the 1990s we realized that we’re not going to solve this problem of affordability, just by fixing up what already exists, we need to build new homes. 

PC: This is Paul Mazzarella again, the former executive director of INHS.

PC:  So far, INHS has created over 1,343 units of housing for over $188 million, adding value as well as housing to the community.

AT: INHS is a non-profit whose sole purpose is to create this kind of housing. But this job can’t fall only on their shoulders, so the city is finding ways to encourage for-profit developers to include affordable housing in their projects. The city has come up with a few ways to incentivize this.

PC: It created what’s called the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement program, also known as CIITAP. It’s meant to incentivize dense housing and encourage developers to build some affordable units within their development.

AT: Any developers who want to be considered for an abatement, must either develop 20 percent of units on-site as affordable at 80% AMI or pay into the county’s affordable housing fund. 

AT: Lisa Nicholas, Deputy Director of Planning for the City of Ithaca will tell us more. 

Lisa Nicholas: So that it can either be 20 percent, affordable, of the number of units, or you can or a developer can choose to pay into a fund, it’s a certain amount per unit, and that will go into the county’s fund for affordable housing and they become one of the things become, then that fund becomes part of the financial package for people who want to build affordable projects.

A: Affordable housing developers, like INHS or any other private developers, can compete for this fund to subsidize their projects. 

P: There is however some concern with developers buying their way out of building affordable housing. Again, Brian Crandall. 

BC: The West End Ironworks, which was also recently approved, they’re paying something like $650,000 into the fund, because they didn’t want to include any affordable housing in their 129 unit project. And there’s a concern that if everyone just decides, hey, if I can pay into this, rather than build units, I’m going to pay into it, you’re going to end up with another form of segregation in that, you know, all these fancy market-rate units were built, and they paid into the fund.

PC: Genevieve Rand, Ithaca resident and Ithaca Tenant’s Union organizer, is also concerned about how “affordable” housing is being calculated, when developers choose the option to incorporate it instead of paying into the fund.

GR: The problem is that the definition of affordable housing is completely obfuscated, and is completely meaningless.

AT: Let’s take a look at the graphic we saw earlier again. We looked before at the income limits for a household of one. But what about a family? For a family of three looking to move into an affordable unit that makes an income in line with the 80 percent AMI figure, rent is estimated to cost $1,610 a month

GR: “If you build a bunch of $1500 apartments, [..] all it does is raise the average price of rent in the community, it doesn’t make housing cheaper for all the people who can already can’t afford a $1200 apartment.”

GR: “So designating, that as affordable in the first place is a problem. For us, not for people who want the government to give them big giant multimillion-dollar tax discounts on building housing for rich people, by their standards, calling that affordable housing is great.”

GR: “The direction that I and everybody else in the Tenants Union is coming at it from is how many people we know, who are low income can afford the housing that’s being built there. And if it’s nobody, or if it’s a few, this is not affordable housing.”

AT: Let’s break down the different options for affordable housing.

AT: One option is using section 8 vouchers, Around 1,500 are administered by Ithaca Housing Authority and Tompkins Community Action to the city of Ithaca.

PC: Then there’s subsidized housing through HUD or housing nonprofits that lowers the cost of rent for everyone that lives there. Some of the nonprofits that manage housing are INHS, Tompkins Community Action and Second Wind Cottages.

AT: There’s low-income ‘public housing.’ There are 341 units that HUD owns and operates.

AT: And finally, there’s the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which gives developers tax credits. The aforementioned CIITAP Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program.

PC: “But, even when affordable housing projects get the funding and approval they need, the developers often face opposition from local residents.

JoAnn Cornish: “There’s a lot of NIMBYism, too, about affordable housing, you know…”

P: That’s JoAnn Cornish, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Ithaca. And nimbyism is referring to the acronym NIMBY meaning “Not in my back yard.”

JC: “I think people need to understand sort of the complexities but also the opportunities with affordable housing.”

PM: “I’m sorry to say that even in a progressive community, like Ithaca, there are a lot of people who are opposed to building affordable housing. And I think a lot of the opposition is based on some very negative perceptions that they have about that housing, and the people that live in that housing. So INHS has run into neighborhood opposition in just about every project it’s ever built.”

***

PC: “Where you live determines how close you are to resources like grocery stores, to child care; and hospitals — and your location can greatly affect your transportation costs.

AT: “So what do you do when you work here, at one of the county’s biggest employers, but you can’t afford to live here? The flip side of the affordability coin is the cost of transportation, paired with the cost of housing.

JC: “We know that a large population of people that work in the City of Ithaca can’t afford to live here.” 

Javon: “I live way out in Newfield, because I can’t afford Ithaca’s rent.”

A: This a Javon, we met her in Part 1. She asked us to not include her full name.

Javon: “I’m working at Cornell making $18 an hour and I still struggle to pay my rent, you know, and bills on time. I’m a single parent of two.

A: So, for Javon, the cut on rent ends up costing her, in more ways then one.

SM: “Opportunity cost, right, when you are living out in a green field and your kids cannot walk to school.

P: Again, Mayor Svante Myrick.

SM: They can’t decide to stay after school to try that new chess club. When you don’t have reliable bus service. All of those things could cost you career opportunities, employment opportunities, educational opportunities, and things that help you climb the ladder, so to speak.

PC: The city’s solution is to build more housing closer to the center. They say if the demand goes up, so should the supply.

JC: “With all the new housing, that market will become saturated at some point, and we may see rents level out. Property owners are going to have to lower their rents a little in order to be competitive.”

AT: Not everyone agrees that the supply and demand model is the right solution. A lot of the recent developments have been luxury and high-end housing, and because there’s a lot of competition for units, landlords can raise the rent because they know they’ll be able to find someone who’s willing to pay it. 

UPI (Tyrone): “It’s really not about how much property they put up. It’s about the quality of the property and who can afford it. You know, so they can put up as many units as they want. Can people afford it?”

GR: “If you build a bunch of $1500 apartments, that doesn’t, all it does is raise the average price of rent in the community, it doesn’t make housing cheaper for all the people who can already can’t afford a $1200 apartment. So this approach of just building more housing, as a concept is really a lot more convenient as a solution for developers and for people who are invested in real estate, or people who are paid by those folks than it is for the people who actually need to be able to afford their housing without paying half of their income for it.”

AT: And like we learned from Brian Crandall in Part 1, property taxes can be fairly high.

PC: Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick says Cornell has a lot to do with this.

SM: You cannot have a conversation about affordable housing and Ithaca without talking about Cornell which is the big red elephant in the room.

SM: Our taxes are high, because our services are very good. But it’s also because Cornell University is tax exempted, the single largest property owner in the county […] they own about half the value of all the land in the city of Ithaca. If they would have paid property taxes, they’d be paying something like $35 million a year, which represents half of the city with his entire annual budget. Right. But the fact that they don’t pay means everybody else has to pay more. And that drives up the taxes for people who own homes.

BC: If I use, just for example, the North Campus expansion going on that. If they’re taxed at the rate that the rest of the city of Ithaca is taxed, they would pay the equivalent taxes of the entire town of Enfield. Just that project. So there’s a ton of money that gets lost, essentially, because Cornell doesn’t pay taxes.

SM: Like most institutions, its size, Cornell has come up with an agreement with the city payment in lieu of taxes, they make a payment of about one in three quarter million dollars a year at $1.7 million here, again, […] juxtapose that with 35 million. To be very honest, Cornell is behind all of its peers, all of its peers, it contributes less financially to the community than they do and less than they can afford to.

AT: Finally, on top of all the existing problems Ithaca has with affordability, 2020 added another.

JC: What we didn’t anticipate, no one anticipated this. In the past year, since the pandemic hit is we are seeing people from metropolitan areas, buying homes here to get out of the city […] so we are seeing people moving for metropolitan areas and purchasing homes at what you know, for them is a is a very reasonable cost, compared to New York City prices.

AT: The United States Commercial Real Estate Services did a study on USPS address change filings in 2020 versus 2019. The number of relocations from the New York City metro to Tompkins County jumped from 322 to 495. Meaning 173 more homes, which is a significant number for Ithaca’s scale.

JC: So they’re coming into the market now. And they’re purchasing homes, and they are putting a lot of money into them. So that takes them out of the market for moderate-income families.

AT: Looking to the future, it’s clear that the affordable housing issues in Ithaca are far from over. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

SM: The demand continues to outstrip the supply. You know, even though we are building faster, we’re adding jobs faster than we’re adding housing. […] So we’re kind of swimming upstream. 

PC: This uphill battle has gone on long enough according to some residents. Organizations across the city have formed over the last year, looking to take matters into their own hands. 

Harry Smith: To sit on your hands not be willing to put in time or work or effort with the very people that you talk about wanting to help. I have to sit there. I’m here […] and just watch people waste away time.”

AT: That’s Harry Smith, founder of Black Hands Universal, a grassroots organization, under the umbrella of Southside Community Center. They’ve been doing a lot of work since last summer from job placements, to creating mental health and educational resources, as well as working with housing programs.

HS: Basically doing nearly everything that you could think of in order to help with social injustices, equality, equity, and just upward mobility for BIPOC. 

AT: Another organization is the Unbroken Promise Initiative, or UPI.

PC: UPI is a nonprofit started during the summer of 2020, to benefit the neglected black and brown community on the West End of Ithaca. 

UPI (Yasmin Rashid, VP): Operating within the system is not working because it’s a racist system built solely with the intention of marginalizing and excluding, you know, a particular demographic and deeming them to permanently be less than, you know, the rest to society.

PC: That was Yasmin Rashid, UPI’s Vice President.

AT: And here’s the the initiative’s founder and president, Jordan Clemons.

UPI (Jordan Clemons, Founder & President): UPI aims to build a localized economy on the West Hill. Still, […] our mission is to still develop land and neighborhoods on the west Hill to address barriers to access, education and equity. For a family or any person to really thrive, you know, in life, you know, it’s important that they wake up to quality housing, right. So when you talk about the conditions in which some of our demographic of people are living, just talking about people who are living in really decimated communities, a lot of the housing is in violation of just human decency, human rights, and housing codes. And so what UPI are looking to do, we’re looking to provide quality housing. […] That’s vital when you talk about addressing the barriers in which some of our community members face over on the West Hill.

A: Another organization was founded recently to address issues with Ithaca’s housing: The Ithaca Tenants Union. This is Genevieve Rand, an Ithaca Tenant’s Union organizer.

GR: The main goal right now is quality housing as a human right, which means that everybody who wants a place to live has a place to live. And that that is a quality, well-maintained place to live. Housing is being discussed as a commodity from the perspectives of people who own it and invest in it, rather than being discussed as a human right and a health issue from the people who live in that housing.

***

PC: So, let’s recap: 

PC: Ithaca is experiencing an affordable housing crisis and the issue is complicated. The wages are not keeping up with the rising price of housing, prices continue to go up because of student interest and gentrification, Cornell not paying property tax heightens the property tax of the rest of the city. And on top of it all, the cost of developing new property continues to go up.

AT: Simply put, there is more demand for affordable housing than there is supply—but most housing developers can’t sell or rent for less than the cost of taxes, purchasing and building. 

PC: So, developers that want to develop affordable housing need to use specific financial models that combine tax credits and subsidies so that developers can lower rent or drop the purchase price of a house.

AT: Nonprofits like INHS, whose sole purpose is to create this kind of housing, use this model. However, for-profit developers are more interested in, well, profit. 

PC: So the city is working to incentivize for-profit developers to include affordable housing units in their buildings.

AT: But activists are tired of waiting for bureaucratic processes and are taking matters into their own hands

PC: And there are still more issues we just didn’t have time to get into, like accounting for the work that goes into preserving affordable housing once it’s built and how the lack of affordable housing impacts homelessness in Ithaca.

A: Housing is complicated: it’s affected by so many economic factors, and it’s also so important to the culture of any city, and of any neighborhood. And it affects so many aspects of our lives, especially this past year.

JA: I think if anything, the pandemic has really magnified our how much we rely on our homes, to keep us safe, to keep us sane. So I think there’s just this this kind of  awakening from humans all over the place. You know what does home really mean to me?

PC: From The Ithaca Voice, this is Home.

Credits: 

Home: The past, present and future of Ithaca’s housing crisis

From The Ithaca Voice

Producers & Lead Researchers:

  • Alisha Tamarchenko 
  • Peter Champelli

Supervising Editor:

  • Anna Lamb 

Additional Research:

  • Anna Lamb
  • Brain Crandall
  • Meghna Maharishi 
  • James Barrata

Support our local, independent journalism at ithacavoice.org

Special Thanks:

  • Cassi Norgaisse, Ithaca Voice Board of Directors
  • Donna Eschenbrenner, Ithaca History Center
  • Nels Bohn and Anisa Mendizabal, Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency 
  • Ruth Aslanis, City of Ithaca GIS Program Manager