This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual freshman issue as “Cost of Housing Outpaces Incomes in Ithaca.”
Raymond McKane was found dead inside a tent behind Wal-Mart in Downtown Ithaca last March after his employer reported him missing. Police were uncertain of what caused 49-year-old McKane’s death when they found him, but, after ruling out foul play, it quickly became apparent that McKane was a victim of a social epidemic that kills hundreds of people across the country every year. The tent in which he was found, near abandoned railroad tracks and not far from a former city dump, served as McKane’s makeshift housing. He died homeless.
Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson (D-13th District) says McKane’s extreme poverty despite his job is rare in Ithaca and the surrounding Tompkins County area. In her time serving as chair for the Planning, Development and Environmental Quality Committee, she has noticed that incomes cannot keep pace with rapidly rising housing costs.
“We see the living wage for one person is more than $20,000. If you make minimum wage full time like a lot of people do, you earn something like 12,000 per year. So we have a lot of people not making a living wage, and yet they’re trying to buy housing in a market that’s the most expensive this side of the Hudson River,” Robertson said.
In effect, the number of homeless bed nights has increased dramatically since 1997. According to a comparative yearly analysis of shelter and motel usage created by the Homeless and Housing Task Force, the Red Cross, The Department of Social Services and the Advocacy Center provided over 11,000 nights of lodging for residents in 2001 up from 8,000 the year before. By 2006, that number had risen to over 16,000 nights of Tompkins County residents needing free lodging.
Christine Sanchirico, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tompkins-Tioga Counties, said the number of families they have needed to provide for “is always climbing higher.” Catholic Charities runs a security deposit support program in addition to helping residents finance utility bills.
“We now serve between 650 and 700 families throughout Tompkins County each year,” Sanchirico said. “85 percent are classified as very low income, meaning earning one-third of the median income and below. These people are really living on the edge, and most are working poor who have jobs but are not being paid enough to get by.”
The result of the disproportionate income and housing rates creates “a tremendous housing pressure and a lot of cost burdened people” according to Robertson. She added that a family should only be spending 30 percent of their resources on housing.
Spending that little is difficult for residents who sometimes move outside of Ithaca and commute to work every day. A report from the 2006 Affordable Housing Needs Assessment (AHNA) stated that a recent survey of Cornell employees indicated that more than half of respondents “are living outside the county because housing prices are less expensive.”
“This issue surrounding affordability has been around for a while,” said Tompkins County Legislator Nathan Shinagawa ’05 (D-4th District), chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “We wonder if we can retain young professionals and have enough housing so graduate students who want to take a job in Ithaca can afford to live here. If we don’t have housing available we won’t attract businesses we need.”
The solving of Ithaca’s housing capacity problem may not be as simple as building more housing. The presence of Ithaca College and Cornell University in the same city interferes with progress, according to the AHNA.
“High levels of competition for renter units, at least in part due to the county’s university and college, have resulted in low vacancy rates and rising rents,” the AHNA stated.
Students seem attractive to owners of rental property since “multiple student payments toward rent exceeds the fair market rent a family or most working individuals can pay.”
Sanchirico admits that the housing issue is a big problem partly because the student population drives rental costs to the point of being unreasonable.
“We need affordable housing, but if it is built and students end up moving into it we’re not making any headway,” she said.
Making housing more affordable on campuses can help push costs back down and alleviate some of the competition. Shinagawa said when colleges do not provide enough affordable housing for their students they take housing away from the community.
“It’s ridiculous that a graduate student at Cornell would rather live 10 or 15 miles away than live on campus because of the price,” he said.
Robertson recognizes the University’s efforts to move toward more housing on West Campus for both students and staff.
“I have been trying to advocate for Cornell to take responsibility to house more people on campus, and the supply they’re going to add to the existing housing is really necessary,” she said.
Robertson also added that campus housing would also help Cornell’s new sustainable environment efforts and make a lasting “imprint” on the community by reducing green house emissions with fewer University employees having to commute.
Despite pending monetary challenges that county legislators and the University administration are facing, some students on the Hill remain oblivious to the extent of the surrounding financial struggles of permanent residents. Jeffrey Kahn ’10 is part of the campus organization that tutors children who live in trailer parks. Despite encountering his share of poorer areas, Kahn “just assumed most people have places to live.”
Sanchirico believes students attending I.C. and Cornell have that misconception.
“People need to know there is poverty in Tompkins County, in many places dire poverty,” she said. “It might be hard to see when you’re going to class and on campus, but it’s here and we need help.”