The gathering Space @ GreenStar was full on Thursday, December 1 for the Tompkins County Housing Summit.
Attendees heard hours of talk about housing, from planners, developers, a Cornell representative, and those who struggle most to keep a roof over their head in a high-priced rental market.
Summit organizers, funded in part by local developers, realtors, and foundation monies, brought in Christopher Coes, a vice president with D.C.-based non-profit Smart Growth America, to speak on both Wednesday night at Ithaca High School and at the all-day Thursday session.
Coes said on Wednesday that Smart Growth America is dedicated to the proposition developers are “no longer building buildings,” but should be “creating places.”
The philosophy of walkable urbanism that Coes advocated should be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to the development theories to which Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick subscribes: in short, more people should be living in walkable, fairly dense downtowns, with services and shopping accessible by bike or foot. Sprawl is a very bad word among planners of this school; they say that suburban greenfield development – McMansions, in short – leads to more traffic, more pollution, and isn’t accessible to lower-income people.
Transportation costs, Coes pointed out, are part of any household’s budget – the further the commute, the more the transport costs. That’s of concern when “drive till you qualify” is “America’s number one housing policy.”Of $450 billion spent by the federal government on real estate, 80 percent went to drivable suburban development last year, Coes said.
The dark side of urban areas becoming desirable is gentrification, a reality Coes acknowledged in his Wednesday talk.
“Without intervention, increasing walkable urbanism leads to decreasing social equity,” Coes said. A listing of means Coes offered to lessen the impact of rising rents on poor and working people included housing trusts to keep affordable houses affordable, something already offered by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. It also included inclusionary zoning laws, requiring developers to include affordable units in new projects, something that’s been talked about but not implemented with any effect in Tompkins County.
If new housing isn’t going to be built in what are now fields and forests, places to do “infill” development must be found. Filling in empty lots with housing, building more units on already occupied lots, and replacing parking lots with housing are some of the ways planners like to talk about how infill can be achieved.
According to an infill analysis presented by Tompkins County planner Ed Marx, there’s room to build twice as many housing units as it’s projected will be needed over the next decade. There’s room for 3,500 units in Ithaca’s urban core. 500 in what planners are calling “nodes,” mostly the existing villages. 300 in rural centers like Brooktondale and Enfield, and 1,500 in suburban Lansing.Places where public transportation is already available are primed for development; Marx suggested that one area for focus could be the corridor from Ithaca through Varna to Dryden and then onto Cortland. The numbers now available for Tompkins County planners are more nuanced, thanks to a recent study by Ohio-based consultants Danter Group; the “half of one percent” vacancy rate found in a 2012 city study will no longer be featured in conversations of concern about a lack of housing options. The study found that in smaller buildings, defined as those with less than 24 units, the vacancy rate is more like 6 percent countywide. The large, mostly student-oriented buildings have a slimmer vacancy rate.
Cornell’s large impact on the housing market can never be completely planned for, Marx said, but planners are guessing that the university will grow about 1 percent a year.
Ryan Lombardi, Cornell vice president for student life, spoke about the university’s plans for future housing in the Thursday morning session. Cornell wants to provide “a genuine guarantee” of housing for first and second year students.
Right now, 59 percent of sophomores live on campus. Cornell needs 1,400 beds to make that guarantee, and plans on putting many of them on north campus. In total, 48 percent of Cornell’s 14,000-plus undergraduates are housed on campus.
There was lots of talk from developers about why it’s so expensive to build new housing. And summit attendees did hear from “the impacted,” as J.R. Clairborne called people who struggle to find housing in Tompkins County. Businesses sometimes lose recruited talent because of the housing crunch, according to Jennifer Tavares from the Chamber of Commerce.
According to numbers from the county housing study, 92 percent of unmet rental demand in Tompkins County is for housing at $800 a month or below.
According to Sheila Ramos, who lost her housing at Parkside Gardens when they stopped taking Section 8 housing choice vouchers in 2014, renting with INHS requires “perfect credit.”
Sharon Payne, who recently moved to Newfield with her 16-year-old son, put it succinctly: “Housing around here sucks.”