TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—More than 50% of renters in Tompkins County are considered housing cost-burdened, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau presented by the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability at the Tompkins County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Nov. 21.

Affordable, accessible housing was the primary theme of the meeting, with an exploration of certain grant opportunities and funding resources that could or are already being utilized to fight the problem, which has been discussed ad nauseum though progress has been difficult and borderline stagnant. The agenda can be viewed here, and the video can watched here.

Eliot Benman, housing and community development planner, presented information on the Community Housing Development Fund’s (CHDF) impact since 2009, which included 810 units that received funding and 692 units completed or under construction with $1.6 million contributed by the county, and nearly $6 million in additional funding awarded through CHDF.

“The undersupply of ownership housing of course puts pressure on the rental markets. Similarly […] rental housing production has also fallen short of our targets,” Benman said.

Courtesy of the Tompkins County Department of Planning & Sustainability.

The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, Benman said, is an external state funding source that has utilized $2.1 million for homeownership, $1.5 million for rehabilitation work, 120 homes purchased by first-time homebuyers and 68 houses rehabilitated. Tompkins County has to compete with other jurisdictions for the award of this funding, and the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services is the sub-recipient of the funds, which are then administered to the program.

Additionally, the Department of Planning & Sustainability has a goal of incorporating manufactured homes more explicitly into the community, as well as “being ready to support any efforts in regards to nonprofit purchase of nonprofit home parks, or resident-owned communities.” Currently, both Dryden and Danby have received reimbursement-based grants.

In a similar vein, Liddy Bargar and Simone Gatson from the Human Services Coalition (HSC) presented a new program called Home, Together: Tompkins, which is looking for buy-in from the city and county to help provide low-barrier shelter with a focus on expediting people into permanent housing solutions.

The program would use an “opt-in” model with relaxed rules to help meet people where they’re at so the focus can remain on permanent housing.

“When people can access shelter as needed without being screened out, basically the model is to screen people in rather than screen them out, the rules become expectations and the focus becomes safety instead of having to focus on compliance,” Bargar said.

Staff at the shelters would receive trauma-informed training to help establish trust and relationships with individuals coming into the shelters, and single adults would be the population of focus.

“Supportive housing is another evidence-based intervention that really does work in our community,” Gatson said, also hitting on the importance of removing the “preconditions” needed to enter traditional shelters such as a sobriety requirement or a curfew.

Gatson also said that there would a component of including and engaging community members like landlords and business owners who serve people with severe service needs, and a “mitigation fund” would exist to help those community members with damages or theft that they incur.

Another incentive program might be a shopping cart exchange that individuals in the shelter can use to collect trash in exchange for some cash. The other benefit of this, Gatson said, would be to help return missing shopping carts to local businesses.

In terms of a timeline, Gatson said that housing surges would begin soon in 2023, and the rest of the program would aim to rollout by the end of 2024.

“This is a very complex issue but we do think that there are some other specific interventions that might gel really well with the plan we’ve created,” Gatson said.

Additionally, Gatson said that “camping bans essential will erode trust and move people around in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit in with this plan because it focuses on making swift exits to housing.”

Bargar said that currently, there are between 50 and 60 people unsheltered around the community, and that people are spreading out more than they have previously, and there are between 65 and 165 people seeking shelter depending on the day and weather.

Bargar and Gatson will also be presenting the program proposal to the City of Ithaca next month.

Other news & notes

  • Resolutions passed unanimously for the Tompkins County Office for the Aging’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program; Community Services for the Elderly Program; Wellness in Nutrition Program and home health aid annual training funded through the American Rescue Plan.
  • Veteran Services Director J.R. Clairborne noted that the Ithaca International Airport is only the second airport in the state to have a Veteran’s kiosk, with Albany being the first.
  • Public Health Director Frank Kruppa gave an update on the Opioid Task Force, which is now working on framing funding requests which will hopefully be announced in a few weeks.
  • Legislator Mike Sigler asked if the county is still tracking COVID data, and Kruppa said that the county is “looking at the end of the calendar year as a good point to make a transition there and there will be a shift in how and if we report data” as it pertains to COVID numbers.
  • Health and Human Services Committee Chair Dan Klein said the first allocation of the opioid settlement fund that the county is receiving will likely be about $700,000.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is the digital editor/reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Joining in November 2021, she has covered a wide range of topics related to local news. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com,...