ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a busy and perhaps frustrating meeting for the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) last night. The committee discussed the ever-present and long-troubling issue of homelessness in Ithaca, and social and economic support services funds from the feds turned out to be less than initially estimated.

As always, the Voice is here to give you the rundown. For those who want it, a copy of the agenda is here.

2021 HUD Action Plan and CDBG-CV Project Funding

There were two Special Orders of Business last night, the firsy being the public hearing for the proposed grant awards for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds. The annually awarded grants are the Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Program (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME). The requests are designed to help people, or specifically to fund organizations in the community that help people in the low- and moderate-income category.

As what often happens, the requests were greater than the amount the city has to work with. While over $2 million was requested, the city estimated it had $1,132,117 to award. It appears all of this year’s applicants received at least some funding award, though most did not get the full amount they requested. You can read about the submissions here. The PEDC’s role is to approve the funding as the committees of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) have allotted, and send the Action Plan to the full council for approval and implementation in June.

This tends to be a fairly smooth and dry process; the IURA’s citizen committees have already done the hard work of meeting applicants and divvying up the funds, the Common Council just has to sign off. No one signed up to speak during the Public Hearing.

Community Development Planner Anisa Mendizabal shared some unfortunate late-breaking updates from HUD to let the council know that the actual award was less than first estimated, from $668,000 to $633,333 for CDBG, and $330,000 to $316,825, about $48,000 less than initially planned. There are contingencies in place – some INHS homeowner rehab funds will be deducted and the Catholic Charities renovation will take a major cut, while the GIAC Computer Lab and No Las Lagrimas/Latino Multicultural Center will see smaller reductions.

“The IURA members do a lot of work…I think it’s important for us on council to understand how this comes about. When we can’t meet the needs for certain organizations for this kind of funding, it’s important to understand what their needs are so we can potentially find them other sources of funding,” said Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd Ward). The PEDC vote to send to the full Common Council passed unanimously 5-0.

East Hill Fire Station

As previously reported, the city of Ithaca is mulling a proposal to sell the existing half-century old Collegetown No. 2 Fire Station at 309 College Avenue for $5.1 million plus land donated by the buyers, developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr, for the construction of a new $9 million fire station on the 400 Block of Dryden Road.

This is a rather complicated process with multiple votes and public hearings — there are no fewer than four public hearings on various aspects of the project between now and September. Last night’s Public Hearing and PEDC vote would permit the transfer of 309 College Ave to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) for the purpose of undertaking a negotiated acquisition and sales agreement. The IURA is the city department that works out the terms and then (if deemed satisfactory) executes the sale of city-owned property.

The Site Plan Review application to the city Planning Board would occur in July, with an executed contract for sale and acquisition in October and Site Plan Approval by the end of the year. There were no commenters at the Public Hearing this time around, but as mentioned previously, there will be a few opportunities at later stages in the process.

Brock asked about whether competing proposals for 309 College Avenue were considered and if there were assurances 309 College would stay on the tax rolls. Bohn said that as part of review there would be the option to hear other proposals, and that the IURA is aware of concerns regarding tax-exemption and that they could consider a stipulation to add as a deal is finalized.

Fire Chief Tom Parsons discussed the building and the impacts on service, noting the location allowed for reasonable response times and accommodation of IFD needs. Some Belle Sherman residents have written to the city to express concerns with the ability of the fire station to fit into the transition area between that neighborhood and Collegetown, and about deconstruction of the existing two apartments houses rather than demolition. Those will be looked at more closely in the Site Plan Review part of the process, to come later this year.

The vote to send the transfer agreement on to Common Council passed unanimously.

West End Transportation Updates

PEDC was treated to a presentation by city Transportation Engineer Eric Hathaway to update the committee on the latest traffic impact analyses on the city’s West End. As previously reported, the city and state have fought with each other regarding ways to mitigate heavier traffic on the city’s West End, most notably the state’s suggestion of a one-way “couplet” pairing that most of the Common Council was not comfortable with. Likewise, city engineers were concerns the traffic would just be shunted onto adjacent side streets around West Buffalo and West Court Streets.

A compromise proposal being city and state engineers would eliminate the idea of a one-way on West Buffalo Street, and add a third lane to Route 13 adjacent to Carpenter Park. The plans also involve new signage, stripping, a couple of potential time-of-day based turn restrictions on West Buffalo Street and Taughannock Boulevard, and bike/pedestrian amenities.

This is still a concept so it will be discussed further, and it was the opportunity for councilors to hear about the compromise plan. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked how the proposal addresses morning east-bound traffic on Buffalo, to which Hathaway said the proposal would neither relieve or worsen that flow. In turn, Brock asked that it be considered in the proposal, given the backups into her West Hill constituency. Brock also inquired about reversible “switch lanes” depending on time of day, but that wasn’t something that DOT or city engineers looked at, but could review upon request.

Lastly, Brock expressed concerns that a third lane on Route 13 southbound would be less friendly to neighborhood residents and non-drivers. Hathaway explained that the taper would happen as one slows down into the street grid of the West End, and sideswiping is a lower risk as it narrows back to two lanes further south. The option about extending it further south is being explored.

Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) asked about the restriction of left-hand turns on Taughannock when heading east-bound, and how that would work. Hathaway noted that it would create inefficiencies as someone would have to circle the block to make a turn during peak rush hour, but the left-hand turn is a bigger traffic disrupter than the three right turns. Acting Mayor Laura Lewis asked about impacts from neighboring developments, to which Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted that recently-approved projects required extensive bike and pedestrian components as mitigations.

It will likely take a number of weeks and follow-up conversations to determine if DOT is fully on board as they own Route 13, but they have roadwork they need to do and the impetus to move forward with something is apparent. Hathaway will likely be back before the PEDC with another update within the next couple of months.

One of several encampments that could be impacted by potential new homelessness policies from the City of Ithaca. Credit: Casey Martin / Ithaca Voice

Proposed Policy Regarding Encampments on City Property

The final voting item on last night’s agenda was whether or note to accept a written report by IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn regarding the city’s proposed policy regarding encampments on city property. Addressing the underlying issues as well as the needs of the city’s homeless population has long been a difficult issue for local leaders, with various proposals to address the issue.

To note, accepting a report is not the same as endorsing it. It just means they acknowledge they have a staff-written summary for reference whenever they start formulating a policy.

According to the County’s recent Homeless and Housing Needs Assessment (covered by my colleague Zoë Freer-Hessler here) and as shared at the meeting by the Human Services Coalition’s Simone Gatson and Liddy Bargar, around 20-40 encampments of various sizes exist around the city of Ithaca at any given time, higher in the summer and lower in the winter. The city and county’s ultimate goal is to make homelessness rare, brief and non-reoccurring. However, encampments are a clear indication that the community is falling short. They also pose safety and health risks, and demonstrate the difficulty in moving homeless individuals into stable housing.

The reasons for those housing difficulties are varied. There aren’t enough available rooms to provide housing, and many of the unsheltered struggle with substance abuse and mental health concerns that create challenges to maintaining stable housing. Some unsheltered individuals are simply unwilling to access services. The encampments are an informal response to the shelter availability gap and those substance abuse and mental health obstacles.

Ostensibly though, the encampments are risky and unwelcome, with numerous sanitation issues, fire risks, and unlawful activity. The city’s longstanding approach of tacit acceptance has led to frustrated citizens and doesn’t address the underlying issues of a lack of shelter and treatment. But that requires sustained money and manpower that the city and county don’t have. as well as the cooperation of those in need of shelter. Meanwhile, a sanctioned campground would open the city to legal risks, and clearing out existing camps just means they move nearby or return to the same sites after a few months.

In sum, there’s no quick and easy resolution to the encampment issue. To quote Bohn’s report, “(T)he City acknowledges a need to accommodate a limited number of temporary encampments somewhere in the community until the homeless response
system can be expanded to address several of the above legal, regulatory, and practical barriers.”

The proposed city policy shies away from tacit acceptance and towards explicit management. The plan advocates enacting and enforcing bans on encampments in more environmentally sensitive and/or unsafe areas (parks, curbsides, areas adjacent to waterways; the area behind Wal-Mart is noted as “low-sensitivity”), offering access to sanitation and safety options such as porta-potties and handwashing stations in the lower-concern areas, and “tolerating their existence” while resources and support is marshalled for more safe and secure long-term options to fight homelessness in Ithaca and Tompkins County. Not a great situation, but once again there’s no quick and comfortable solution.

“The city as a landowner has a major challenge here. When the city received a complaint of an encampment, the challenge is, what is the proper response,” said Bohn at the meeting. “What makes sense to me is to align the city’s policy with the Continuum of Care (concept).”

Bohn stressed that criminalization of homelessness would be undesirable. It’s expensive, as incarceration isn’t cheap, and it tends to make mental health and behavioral issues worse, and saw his report as “an opportunity to discuss these issues.”

Councilors had their share of concerns. Councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) asked if certain individuals could be banned, to which Bohn said it could be possible but would have to be designed so as to be non-discriminatory to groups. Councilor Brock expressed concerns over health and safety with unsanctioned camps in the community, and that they could be a haven for criminals. However, she acknowledged the needs and issues at hand.

“I would support being very explicit where you would allow it,” Brock warned.

“I don’t think anything gets fixed with this,” said Fire Chief Parsons, noting that there was no firm policy and that Bohn’s report was not being considered as a policy at this time. “I just don’t know where you go from here, without adopting a policy and implementing it, and explicitly defining where you can have encampments.”

In the short-term, as housing costs rise, social services are scattershot and suitable housing continues to be scarce, homelessness will continue to be an issue. Councilor Phoebe Brown, noting that the “Jungle” has been here since she arrived in Ithaca in 1993, noted that some people want to be unsheltered and interaction/enforcement is tricky. The vote to accept Bohn’s report and send it on to Common Council for acceptance passed unanimously.

Brian Crandall

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