September 18, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Cornell’s Unintentional Harm

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Ithaca does not have enough beds. The last year has seen an explosion in local media attention to what has been described as a housing crisis here. Compared to a nationwide vacancy rate of 9 percent, only 0.5 percent of Ithaca’s rental homes are vacant at any given time. This has meant high rents across the board, a factor that contributed to Ithaca’s recent ranking by Market Watch as the 8th most expensive American city/town in which to raise a family. I should say, though, that this does not apply to everyone. In fact, this problem applies conspicuously to Ithaca’s residents who don’t wear a backpack every day.

There are two populations who face the brunt of the effects of Ithaca’s housing crisis. Firstly, there are low-middle income families and individuals, who face prohibitively expensive rental costs. The best and most widespread option in Ithaca for low-income housing comes by way of the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service (INHS), a private, non-profit organization. But despite significant effort from both the INHS and the City, low-income units still often rent at around $1200 a month, a very difficult bar for many to meet.  As a result, many find themselves pressured to relocate to cheaper areas outside of the city, but for those without their own means of transportation, this distance can make holding a job extremely difficult. Consider, also, the stress that relying on infrequent rural public transportation places on a family with children. Even for those with a car, the added cost of gas itself can be a major challenge.

The second group that is most directly harmed is middle-income families seeking market rate housing. These are people looking for child-friendly, multi-bedroom homes, which are few and far between.

The primary issue, from a Cornell perspective, is that the search for student housing and residential housing are incompatible. Developers in the area prefer to build for students than for other Ithaca residents.  The Residents will never be able to compete with students for housing. Quite simply, this is because renting to students is more lucrative and requires significantly less upkeep. Consider a three-bedroom apartment with two prospective groups to which a landlord can rent it. One is a family of three relying on a single parent’s income, while the other is a group of three college juniors. While the family would usually be able to afford the rate, the landlord can rent the apartment to each of the students for $700 per month. The total is a collective price that the family could never afford. Furthermore, students tend to have far lower standards for the spaces they occupy, whereas families often expect more from their homes than the hospitality of a fraternity annex.

Because Cornell has a relatively wealthy student body, and does a reasonably good job of providing its students on financial aid with access to funding for off-campus housing, collegetown landlords rarely have a hard time filling their apartments. Additionally, the University has added over 2000 students since 2006 without building any new on-campus housing. Cornell has spent $1.2 million over the last six years constructing affordable residential housing units, and recently agreed to offer the same amount over the next six years as well. But out of a yearly university budget of $3.6 billion,  this number deserves  a participation award rather than a gold star.

This is where it gets tricky if you are a student, because we have to live somewhere. On-campus housing is guaranteed for half of undergraduates and not for any graduate students, so most students will have to sign a private rental lease at some point. Furthermore, there is no active choice that students have made that has led to the dearth of housing that Ithaca experiences. The dirty truth is that as we creep down the Hill in search of better options, we take opportunities away from those who have nowhere else to go. Our impact, albeit unintentional, is unambiguously negative.

At Cornell, we assume that Ithaca is better off with us around. We recognize that there are some problems, and perhaps the University could do a bit more to help the town, but Cornell drives the local economy in a diverse and intricate set of ways. It is an indispensable force of good for everyone who benefits. This is the attitude many of us take, and it’s a perfectly a reasonable one. But if we believe that the presence of the University will ultimately result in good, it makes it very difficult to handle those instances when it does not. When the simple presence of the college makes it harder for everyone else to live, it calls into question the role that Cornell plays in the region around it. More pressingly, however, is that it directly challenges the way that we view ourselves as a student body and the effect we claim to have.

The way in which we interact with the people and the city around us is defined by the impact we perceive that we  have on their lives. Should students presume that we are incidental benefactors to the rest of the city, we will deserve the perception we have earned from locals as entitled and unaware. Rather, the takeaway is to recognize the flawed relationship that we have, and remember that any positive impacts do no good to a city whose citizens can no longer afford to live in it.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.