By Josh Brokaw
The following commentary is the opinion of TruthSayers founding publisher/editor/reporter Josh Brokaw – though it should be noted that this commentary is responding to the very real and objective quotes from public officials published here. TruthSayers wants to be a vibrant public forum for local issues; if you want to respond in these pages, respond to the email address above.
Let’s play a round of the Inigo Montoya game familiar to most internet commenters.
The word in question is “radical.” We can understand the word both in its original, from-the-Latin sense of “going to the root,” and in its modern, casual usage of political ideas that are outside the norm. Or, in this reporter’s understanding, radical should be understood as representing positions and ideas that are called “unrealistic” by people with a heavy stake in the social status quo. Let’s use it in a sentence: “Big Bird had the radical idea that access to housing shouldn’t be dependent on market forces.”
Our players today are Tompkins County Legislature chairperson Martha Robertson and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. Our players’ comments are taken from a January 10 Industrial Development Agency meeting. Myrick and Robertson were defending their impending votes in favor of tax abatements for a project at 323 Taughannock Boulevard, after opponents of the abatements had made public comment against the tax breaks.
“I hope people don’t think the IDA is the only thing we’re doing to try and create a better housing situation in this county,” Robertson said. “If this is the only thing you’re paying attention to, let’s make an appointment for about a three-hour meeting and we’ll tell you everything we’re trying to do. For example, I made a proposal to the legislature during the budget season in October, November, for something pretty radical and new, a $3 million reserve fund for housing … Personally, i would love to have anybody come to the legislature during public privilege on Tuesday night and say ‘That’s a cool idea, that’s great, I hope the legislature supports it, because frankly it’s going to be a heavy lift to get eight people … we really need to do something different and radical and this is an idea I’m floating …”
“It’s an odd thing because in City Hall I am the radical on affordable housing, the pusher,” Myrick said. “If you spent more time in City Hall you might know that, you might know that no mayor in Ithaca’s history has done as much, or taken as much guff … lost as many friends, lost potential voters, for my fighting to build over 200 units of affordable housing inside the city of Ithaca. with very little to no support from the people in this room, who are accusing me and other people on this board of not caring about affordable housing. And I think the reason (having trouble) being understood is because this system, the housing system, is complicated …”
Robertson is applying radical to the idea of putting $3 million into a capital reserve fund, essentially a savings account of taxpayer monies that can be applied to uses in line with legislature-directed housing goals. Besides the fact that the county already participates in a housing fund with the city and Cornell that applies funds toward affordable housing projects, there is absolutely nothing radical, ever, about throwing more money at a problem. If the county’s legislators want to put money aside to invest in projects they think worthy, fine. But it’s chasing a problem, not changing the root causes: rents, construction costs, land costs — they just keep going up and up under our current capitalist system.
Myrick applying radical to his own self is even more an insult to the word. We’ll have to put aside fact-checking Myrick’s claims to being the bravest mayor in Ithaca’s history, for this reporter has only been around three years.
The 200-plus units of affordable housing in the city that Myrick takes credit for building during his tenure – which was actually, you know, built by laborers and electricians and plumbers, and planned and financed by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services and its various subcontractors — are better than none, for sure. But those apartments, like most in this city, are still out of reach financially for many people; INHS requires credit checks that eliminates others who could perhaps swing the price; and so on. These are not places available immediately to someone coming in off the street.
More to the point, in the very same soliloquy, Myrick closed, in part, with this: “So why would we incentivize housing only wealthy people can afford. We would only do it if it’s going to be built in a location we want. One that 1) it’s not going to displace anybody, tear down a bunch of homes, kick anybody out. 2) It was in a neighborhood were you wouldn’t even worry that everybody on the block is going to see their tax assessment rise. This is that location. This is exactly that location. So it makes sense to me … I read the numbers and I understand we can’t force anybody to build housing. It’s not the system we have. it’s not still a capitalist system, a fact we can’t change at the local level.”
Sorry, Mr. Mayor. Radicals don’t say they can’t change things at any level. You’re a liberal who believes economic orthodoxy constrains political choices. It’s a better bet if you want to be selected as the replacement for whichever New York senator gets a cabinet seat should a Democrat be elected president in 2020, but these positions certainly do not make you a radical.
Political labels, in the end, aren’t all that important if the best society that we can collectively envision is being built. This casual usage of one political term wouldn’t irritate this reporter to write this column so much if the leaders of the most important political entities in Tompkins County were offering new ideas and visionary leadership.
Unfortunately, the bully pulpit voters have granted these leaders is going mostly unused, except when Myrick and Robertson take the opportunity to castigate opponents of tax abatements for not showing up to speak in favor of the occasional “affordable” project that does get to the planning stages. Tax abatements are not a tool intended to ensure that wealthy folks live downtown, though that’s the argument Myrick, in particular, keeps making with these projects like 323T, Harold’s Square, and City Centre — none of which have one apartment “affordable” to people making $40,000 a year, much less the poorest of us. Myrick talked on Jan. 10 about “doubling the rate” that affordable housing is being built, and about changing zoning – but government is slow, the city’s planning department is understaffed, and the mayor doesn’t seem to want to offer new ideas. It’s the same old dependence on private money and its whims, and political leaders in America don’t like to offer ideas that might piss off the financiers who also might contribute to their future campaigns.
I see more, and better, ideas circulated on the email lists and on Facebook, from people who are certainly not experts and many of whom would not describe themselves as radicals. Ideas are being debated in this town that would make for substantive changes in how the housing market works. Like, say, freezing assessment values, just to pick one that certainly doesn’t jive with the eternal political goal of “growing the tax base.” Or a tax on vacancies, like that instituted by Vancouver last year — that might sound silly, given how much we talk about the “one percent” vacancy rate, but this Craigslist watcher is guessing the vacancy rate is much higher in the newest and most expensive apartments. If we’re going the trickle-down route, those most expensive rents need to at least be within reach of the wealthiest people in town, so they can start leaving their ramshackle stick-built houses to the middle-class that can pay a mere $1,600 or so per month for a two-bedroom downtown.
Myrick told the Journal in November that if there were “one thing I could change, it would be the cost of housing.” So how do we change it, Mr. Mayor? Inquiring radicals would like to know.
If you have ideas about how to make Tompkins County a better, more affordable, more equitable place to live, tell TruthSayers: we’re always looking to share visionary ideas, and covering City Hall and the county legislature isn’t satisfying our thirst for new ideas. Right now, we’re collecting ideas for what the city should be planning for the Green Street garage parcel – see more at the link below, and send us your ideas.
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