TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Planning Department released a thorough deep dive into the local housing market last week, showing that renting housing in the county continues to be a profound struggle and that some of the housing market boosts seen nationally are evident locally as well. Through it all, though, a familiar refrain remains: The affordable housing stock, though it is growing, is not nearly enough to service the needs of the community.

The presentation was given at last week’s Tompkins County Housing and Economic Development Committee meeting. It delved into the complete housing market, both rental and otherwise, plus evaluated future developments that are slated to be available in the next one to three years.

View the full presentation, which is filled to the brim with data, here. You can also read through the report at the bottom of this page.

Off the bat, Planning Director Megan McDonald and Senior Planner Susan Landfried, who were presenting the data, stated that certain numbers are clouded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact it had on the local colleges and the freeze in development and construction that resulted for several months. The data was based on American Community Survey results from 2015–19, obviously before the pandemic began, and data taken from the 2020 Census, which was clearly affected by the pandemic though to what extent may not be known for a few more months.

Housing Demographics

It started with a demographics analysis, including that Tompkins County grew as a whole, in terms of population, by 4,176 people in the last 10 years, though the percentage of senior population grew to 13.9% during that time while the youth population (defined as under 18) fell from 16.4% to 14.9%.

The data also showed that the number of commuters has risen over the last decade, with 16,457 people saying they come into Tompkins County for work in 2019, up from 15,023 in 2010. It also showed a slight uptick in the number of people who requested address changes to Tompkins County, though only up 118 households from 2019 to 2020 (495 of the requests came from New York City, 228 from Binghamton, 138 from Syracuse).

However, more people requested change of addresses for moving out of Tompkins County — 559 more requests to change out of the county were received than requests for addresses in the county (these numbers are polluted a bit by students filing when they leave Tompkins County after graduation or move away on their own, but don’t request a change in address when they move to their housing in Tompkins County).

The income gap between homeowners and renters remained quite steep from 2010 to present day. Landfried said, adjusting for inflation, the median income for homeowners increased from $84,640 in 2010 to $86,899 in 2020, while it went from $34,475 to $32,406 for renters.

“Again, this is a figure that is likely impacted by the student population in the county, but it highlights some of the issues with affordability,” Landfried said.

Housing Stock

As for housing-specific data, the total number of housing units in the county increased to 46,844 in 2020, a rise of 5,210 from 2010 (or about 12.5% growth in housing stock over a decade). This resulted in higher vacancy rates, especially for rentals: 4.0% in 2019, less than the 2010 vacancy rate of 4.4% but a substantial increase from the low of 1.9% in 2014.

“The low vacancy rates for Tompkins suggest a housing shortage for both renters and homeowners,” the report states. “Low vacancy will likely keep housing costs high until more units are added to the market. The combination of underproduction of housing pre-pandemic and the ongoing challenges posed by supply chain and labor market disruptions suggest that these low vacancy rates may persist until more housing units are built.”

Landfried also said that some of the housing data illustrates that local households are joining the overall movement toward smaller households in terms of people (possibly smaller families overall) that has been seen wider nationally. Density was also an obvious emphasis of the development that did occur during the last half of the decade: there were 2,469 total units built from 2016–20 throughout Tompkins County, 1,994 of which were multifamily developments while 475 were single-family.

“This is an indication of a trend that we’ve seen of having smaller households,” Landfried said. “So you’re still needing the housing units, because you’re just having smaller households than what we were having 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

There are just under 2,000 new rental units under development that should become available through 2025 — 213 will be income-restricted rental units, 1,781 will be new market-rate rentals (about 860 of this latter number are non-student oriented).

As for specific goals in development since 2016 (when the Danter Study was completed), 139 total units of senior housing has been built, 71 at market rate rent and 68 at subsidized rates, with another 152 market-rate units on the way. The Danter Study called for 100–200 subsidized senior apartments and a Medicaid Assisted Living Program facility.

The study also called for 100 beds of permanent supportive housing and 100 single room occupancy beds for people who make under 30 percent area median income. There have been 32 supportive housing units come online and four SRO beds, though Landfried noted that there are 144 units in development currently dedicated for those populations “at risk of homelessness, those with mental health diagnoses, those with needs related to substance abuse” and similar circumstances.

As for geographic areas of development, the Development Focus Areas (as shown below) have truly lived up their name, hosting 1,896 of the units developed including 1,671 in the urban center around Ithaca. However, just 21 units have been built in the rural centers (though, in fairness, the Danter Study only listed a goal of 30 units).

From 2016–20, the City of Ithaca and Town of Ithaca both saw the most development, according to the report, followed closely by the Town of Lansing and then the Village of Lansing and the Town of Dryden (although the last two are quite a bit farther behind).

Rental Market

The data on the rental market was, perhaps predictably, fairly dreary and worse than it had previously been. “Cost-burdened” renters are people who spend more than 30% of their income on housing, while “severely cost-burdened” spend more than 50% of their income on housing.

Some numbers for reference showing what kind of income is needed to not be cost-burdened by rent in Tompkins County:

In Tompkins County, 55% of renter households are cost-burdened, and 34.1% are severely cost-burdened. Those figures are up from 51.9% and 28.7% in 2010, respectively, meaning that currently more than one in three renters in Tompkins County are spending more than 50% of their income on housing costs.

Damningly, this shows that the aforementioned median income for renters, around $32K, would not be (nearly) enough to avoid cost-burdensome median rents in the county for even a studio apartment.

Meanwhile, those numbers have gone down for owner-occupied households: 18% cost-burdened and 7.2% severely cost-burdened, down from 23.4% and 8.4% in 2010, respectively.

A geographical listing of cost-burdened and severely cost-burdened residents:

According to the report, median rents have increased for all unit sizes by 18.7% (studio apartments) to 34.3% (three-bedroom units) since 2010, outpacing inflation during that time, though the growth did slow during the second half of the decade.

For growth on a per-year basis, the numbers are as follows from 2010–20: overall, studios rose 2.1% per year; one-bedrooms rose 2.3% per year; two-bedrooms rose 2.4%; three-bedrooms rose 3.7% and four-bedrooms rose 3.1%. While growth did slow at the end of the decade to most units, it actually accelerated for studios: from 2010–15, the average annual growth rate was 0.5%; from 2016–20, the average annual growth rate for rent was 3.7%.

But Landfried offered an unfortunate note at the end: “I would note that current data for 2021 and projected 2022 data shows that it looks like that pace of rent growth is starting to pick up again.”

Housing Sales Market

As one could have probably guessed from a quick peek at Zillow or other real estate sites, Tompkins County property sales climbed mightily in 2020, not unlike much of the rest of the country and very similar to surrounding counties. It actually trailed Cayuga County, Tioga County and Schuyler County, although Tompkins County’s 2018–20 trend started and ended much higher than any of those three.

The median sales price for a house in 2020 was $255,000, a $25,000 increase from 2019. The months supply of inventory, which refers to the number of months it would take the current inventory of houses on the market to sell, was down to 1.5 in 2020, from 3.3 in 2018 — ostensibly showing a steep shortage of supply, but also hot demand.

“There are a number of developments that are coming online this year, next year and in 2023, a lot of which include affordable units,” Landfried said. “I think we will hopefully see some changing of those metrics going forward and that there will be affordable units available to those households. But in this period, there was not a lot of development, and some of that can be tied to things that were supposed to come online last year that were delayed.”

Discussion

Legislator Martha Robertson noted that the vacancy rate was quite surprising to her, and asked how short-term rentals (like properties that are used solely for Airbnb rentals, for example, and vacant when not rented) are counted. That’s been an emerging issue over the last several years, with the Town of Ithaca and Tompkins County governments specifically grappling with how to address short-term rentals from a policy standpoint. Landfried confirmed that properties solely for short-term rental use are counted as vacant units — though empty student units due to being sent home at the beginning of the pandemic also wrought some havoc on the numbers.

“My best guess at why you saw that 70% increase to 2,700 units is I do think that units were counted from April 1 and then beyond to get that point-in-time count,” Landfried said. “They were likely student units. The City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca had dramatic increases in their vacant units, which would make sense with that hypothesis.”

McDonald said that sentiment fit with what the Planning Department had heard anecdotally from landlords at the time of the count.

Legislator Anne Koreman noted one of the more surprising statistics in the report: that in order to afford a median-rent one-bedroom apartment without being rent-burdened, a household would need to make $42,880 per year.

“The cost-burden issue is much worse for people who are renting,” Koreman said. “That’s something I want us as a legislature to keep in mind.”

Robertson asked Landfried what she would suggest the county should focus on to incentivize development that would subsequently help alleviate some of the burden for people looking to rent. Landfried, though she has been steadfast in avoiding using the report to offer prognoses for fixing the rental market, offered a familiar response.

“The cost for development, particularly the cost for infrastructure, is a substantial barrier to development, particularly single-family residential development,” Landfried said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com