September 22, 2006

Tompkins Lacks Affordable Housing

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Those that think that the rush to find affordable housing for the 2006-2007 school year is unique to Cornell students are largely mistaken. According to a study done by the Economic and Policy Resources of Burlington, Vt., Tompkins County as a whole is lacking in affordable housing and the demand for such housing is expected to continually increase.

Affordable housing has generally been defined as a home that requires no more than 30 percent of one’s household income to buy, according to Paul Mazzarella, executive director of Ithaca Neighborhood Services. Tompkins County seems to sell homes which require about 50 to 60 percent of a household’s income, Mazzarella said.

Ithaca, it seems, is especially at risk.

“Our housing market is unusual because it’s more expensive than the surrounding [towns’ markets],” Mazzarella said. The real issue stems from the fact that people’s incomes are not necessarily higher as a result.

The study was done by a consultant hired by Tompkins County after identifying citizens’ needs for lower-priced homes. It identified a total of 871 housing units, with a steady projected increase, according to Heather Filiberto, senior planner of Tompkins County Planning Department.

Tompkins County has since outlined an Affordable Housing Needs Assessment complete with strategies and plans over the next several years to increase affordable housing. The problem, however, is that “the county has no land-use authorities,” and that much of the actual action is “up to the municipalities,” according to Filiberto.

Filiberto also mentioned that Ithaca and Lansing specifically have been very involved in attempting to resolve the issue and have already put money into development. A renter survey should be circulating Tompkins County soon to gather up-to-date data on rent pricing.

Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, for example, is a non-profit organization that works to help those with low-incomes find housing is looking to produce more housing units as well as create land trusts, or ways in which housing that Ithaca builds will remain permanently affordable.

“If [Ithaca] had done land trusts a long time ago, there’d be a lot more affordable housing now,” said Anne Clavel, lawyer and city planner in Ithaca, who has done several previous studies on affordability in Ithaca.

“People told me that houses have doubled [in price]. The result is that housing that might’ve been available at a low rate and therefore affordable is not affordable now,” said Prof. Pierre Clavel, city and regional planning.

So what does this imply? One of the impacts is that people who would have jobs in Tompkins County would have previously bought homes there as well, but now might be looking elsewhere for homes, according to Clavel.

There are currently strategies in effect, but not very much action. According to Mazzarella, this issue may take several years of planning alone to fix. However, once underway, this may affect not only low-income families, but college students as well.

“Should we succeed, anybody that’s [renting or buying a house] should benefit,” said Mazzarella. Unfortunately, according to him, this remains a “pretty big problem” — one that may take over a decade to have any impact, and one that is not predicted to reach any solution that’s 100 percent agreeable by any of the parties.