ITHACA, N.Y.—To open 2023, it was another relatively short meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee. While a relatively short meeting as these meet-ups go, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the summary anyway—after all, a five-minute read is a more efficient use of your day than watching an 80-minute meeting. For those who like to glance at the agenda associated with these writeups, that very modest 14-page PDF can be viewed here.

Quick programming note, last night’s councilors in attendance included some incumbent PEDC members (The First Ward’s Cynthia Brock, the Second Ward’s Phoebe Brown, and the Third Ward’s Rob Gearhart), as well as Second Ward Councilor Ducson Nguyen and newly-elected Fourth Ward Councilor Tiffany Kumar. The Mayor has decided to appoint both Second Ward reps to this cycle’s PEDC.

Presentation: Planning Department 2023 Goals

Ithaca is not encased in amber; the city is always changing, whether with projects planned, goals developed and pursued, or in response to changes in the world around it. City Planning Director Lisa Nicholas gave the PEDC an update on the city Planning Department’s recently completed activities, as well as those planned for 2023. Quick note, this is not the projects summary report that talks about building plans, it’s the policy objectives and tasks, it’s things like zoning and building codes.

Primary goals for 2023 include finishing the Downtown Plan, work with the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency in administering $1.2 million in grants to reduce homelessness, and upgrading the city’s permits system to be fully-electronic (OpenGov software). Implementation of Short-Term Rental legislation, advancement of projects related to the Ithaca Green New Deal, and acquiring a site for a new Public Safety Facility are also on the to-do list. The Planning Department is pursuing historic landmark designation for parts of Downtown Ithaca, and Design Review for the rebuild of the 400 Block of Collegetown’s College Avenue, along with numerous other items related to administration and economic development.

Also among the goals is increasing manpower. The Department hopes to fill seven vacancies in building permits and planning, and two retirements expected in 2023. Eight staff were hired or promoted last year, but three of the department’s staff left. Getting the staffing in place to handle all of the city’s building, planning and development activities have been difficult in the tight labor market. Building code inspectors have been especially difficult. In discussion, Councilor Brown noted the need to be inclusive and seek diversity in hires, while her colleague Nguyen lamented that it’s hard to keep staff here because of Ithaca’s geographic isolation and cost of living.

Councilors were supportive of the plan overall, though concerns were raised about the waterfront, and councilor Brock pointed out that exterior property maintenance ordinances need an overhaul so that tickets will stand up in court. In response to another question from Brock, Nicholas said that the inlet dredging facility has been built, but added that NYS DEC doesn’t have the money to carry out the dredging, which is probably not going to settle councilors’ nerves.

Unsanctioned Encampments Update

Director Nicholas reported that the working committee developing an unsanctioned encampments policy has met with St. John’s Community Service and other stakeholders in the provision of services and serving the needs of the broader homeless population beyond encampments, and a policy is being written up as of this writing. “We’re close to (having) it, we really are,” said Nicholas.

“I’m glad to hear that you know there are other things happening besides encampments…my concern is that encampments does not cover a variety of situations. We don’t want a band-aid fix, we want something that will last and sustain, how sustainable will it be for the other homeless, unhoused populations who will not be a part of the encampment,” said councilor Brown in response.

As this was just an update, there was nothing to vote on, but as the policy is brought forth, there may be an item for discussion and vote in the next few months, so keep an eye out.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) Update

New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state’s agency-equivalent of the federal HUD, has offered grant money to rehabilitate existing ADUs and build new ADUs. ADUs are things like basement apartments in owner-occupied homes, garage loft apartments, in-law apartments, and the like, typically found in larger homes on larger parcels in the outer neighborhoods of Ithaca. Working with INHS, the city applied for a grant and received $500,000 from the state to use towards renovations to bring existing ADUs up to code. “It was a very quick turnaround in the grant application, and it will help a lot of low-income homeowners,” said Nicholas.

“What exactly is low income,” asked Brock in response. “The average income for a single person in the Ithaca metropolitan area is $82,000.”

It’s dependent on area median income and household size,” said Nicholas. “It’s very difficult to be a low-income homeowner in this community.”

The city will be working with INHS, providing oversight while INHS directly administered the application process to determine qualified applicants, the scope of work, and the arrangement of contractors to carry out work.

Short-Term Rentals

At both the municipal and county level, local communities have taken some major steps to address and regulate the short-term rental (STR) market, dominated locally by AirBnB. Over the past year, the county has contracted with tracking firm Harmari to keep tabs on the STR market. Active and unique listings grew 5% from 1,154 to 1,217 units, with around 2,000 bedrooms, practically the same number of hotel rooms in Tompkins County. Ithaca city hosts the most, followed by Ithaca town and Dryden town. Ithaca typically has 300-400 active and unique listings with an average daily rate of $232 with a median monthly income of over $3,200, more lucrative than most market-rate properties and even many student rental units.

As readers are aware, STRs are controversial. On the one hand, most folks don’t have a problem with their neighbor renting out an in-law unit or their home for occasional tourists and visitors. On the other hand, it deprives the market of needed housing, there have been noise, health and safety concerns with a subset of problematic hosts, and many units are not in compliance with room tax laws, giving them an unfair and illegal advantage over motels and hotels.

With this in mind, the Town of Ithaca and the village of Cayuga Heights’ have instituted STR regulations. The number of listings in those areas dropped by 40% with the town’s new operating permits and limitations on occupancy and rental periods, with hefty fines for violators. Property owners both in favor and against STRs continue to duke it out as the county, the city of Ithaca and other communities weigh their own legislation, and the city of Ithaca was preparing to take another crack at it last night.

Leading off the discussion was an analysis and report by lawyer and Cornell planning student Josephine Klepack Ennis. The spark notes version is that the city’s regulation should focus on a permit requirement with three tiers, for primary residence rentals, seasonal secondary residence rentals (secondary meaning like a summer vacation home or in-law apartment), and occasional (<14 day) secondary residence rentals that have a streamlined review and reduced fee, but are carefully monitored, usually by a third-party tech firm (they mentioned Granicus), to make sure they don’t exceed the number of rental days allowed.

This would follow the usual process — drafting a policy, bringing it forward to the PEDC for initial discussion, circulating the initial proposal for public and city staff comment, and then another visit to the PEDC for approval of legislation, revised as needed, which would then go the full Common Council for approval and implementation into law. Nicholas stated that, as seen with the four-month phase-in period within Ithaca town, there would have to be a grace period to allow STR providers to come into compliance.

Staff and council are aware this could be contentious, and unlikely to accommodate everyone’s wishes. But the goal is to serve a broad middle of the spectrum, people who might rent out their homes for weekend visitors or college graduation week parents, and supplement their income a bit, without turning housing blocks into rows of poorly-maintained STRs. Councilor Nguyen noted the impacts on the scarcity of the city’s affordable housing, like Brock, originally from Hawai’i, spoke of how AirBnBs priced out Hawaiians from Hawai’i and the need to regulate STRs tightly.

The regulation, administration and potential enforcement options will be fleshed out in the coming weeks, and once it’s back before the PEDC for discussion, the Planning Department would like to solicit public feedback to make sure they’re striking a fair balance and considering all factors in the proposed legislation. STR legislation is likely coming soon, but it’s not ready just yet, but we’ll keep you posted.

Brian Crandall

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