Conditions in Collegetown lately seem to echo a sentiment proclaimed by Jimmy McMillan, who ran for governor of New York in 2010: “The rent is too damn high.”
Humorous campaign slogan aside, this has become the mantra of Cornell students as well, as rent rates for apartments in Collegetown have increased substantially over the past several years. According to The Ithaca Times, in 2014, Ithaca was ranked 11th on The New York Times’ list of most expensive United States cities, just one spot behind the nation’s financial capital of New York. This accompanied a report released by the Urban Institute in 2015, which revealed that about 44 percent of American renters spent over 35 percent of their income on rent in 2010.
The rent issue is a result of too many students searching for too few off-campus housing options. Over half Cornell’s 14,000 undergraduate students live off campus, and Cornell’s on-campus facilities cannot accommodate the demand for housing. According to a report from the Ithaca Voice last February, Cornell was at “maximum capacity” in its on-campus housing options. Rumors about Cornell’s overflow housing — dormitory common spaces used as collective bedrooms — now ring true.
The struggles of high rent may not be unique to Cornell, but it does appear as though other local institutions have found solutions. Ithaca College, for example, accommodates almost 75 percent of its students through its on-campus housing options, according to the Ithaca Voice. And while Cornell is actively attempting to rectify the need for housing through its North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) plan, the University plans to house all of its first and second year students through NCRE. The catch? Those “sophomores” referenced will also be housed through “co-ops and affiliated housing.” After the development of new residences, Cornell still can’t accommodate all its first- and second-year students in its dorms. With “anticipated increases in undergraduate enrollment,” it seems as though the on-campus housing need will remain proportionally unchanged in future years.
As a result of these limited accommodations, Cornell students looking for residences within walking distance of the classroom end up searching in Collegetown. Competition is high: In Collegetown, leases for Lambrou Real Estate’s “desirable” apartments are signed as early as 16 months before the leases’ start dates, leaving few options for those who wait to sign. However, securing these covetable apartments often entails unreasonably high rent prices. According to the Ithaca Voice, students — myself included — find their off-campus rent prices unreasonable. Collegetown realtors often place a premium on their apartments to achieve a particular “level of exclusivity.” Thus, realtors attempting to beat competitors may simultaneously take financial advantage of struggling students. Not a great look for Ithaca.
Landlords may not all be to blame, however. In 2014, property taxes were 22 cents to the dollar, according to same Ithaca Times story. Landlords also experienced about 75 percent turnover each year, as students move out and seek new housing. Maintaining properties that are already expensive creates a large financial strain for Collegetown real estate.
Unfortunately, these expensive properties fail to provide the appropriate quality of housing. This November, Cornell undergraduate student Shimon Shuchat told The Sun he “began sleeping in a library on campus,” after dealing with the stress of an off-campus apartment that failed to provide adequate heating, plumbing, and hot water.
While the high rent prices might be arbitrary for some Cornell families, these circumstances drastically penalize others in the community. Building off students’ ability to pay high rent, landlords increase prices each year to beat competitive rates. This largely disadvantages Cornell students who are simultaneously unable to find on-campus housing and unable to afford the off-campus prices. The Ithaca community as a whole also struggles to afford increasingly expensive rent due to the inflationary pressure of the student rent market. The Ithaca Times notes, however, that increasing the available housing options while keeping rent rates in the same price range would do little to remedy these issues.
High rent may not be the problem, however, according to the Ithaca Journal. Reporter Mary Jarvis argues that the average rent in Collegetown in 1990 was $705. In 2010, it was $1,066. While the increase is dramatic, the rent incline was less than the inflation rate increase. The effect felt by students looking for off-campus housing was a result of the University itself: As new on-campus housing options opened, the price of rent and meal plans increased dramatically — double that of the inflation increase from 1990 to 2010. The off-campus housing market simply adjusted to compete. Next time we complain, we may need to remember to point fingers at ourselves.
Regardless of who may be to blame in this scenario, it is clear that changes need to be made. If Cornell wants to demonstrate respect for the financial struggles of its students — if that’s even one of its priorities. It’s possible that such high housing rates may discourage students from pursuing graduate programs at Cornell due to the continued financial strain. Students’ inability to provide for themselves, even in a small college town, creates an atmosphere of apprehension for the future.
Collegetown landlords, too, may need to watch their rates if they want to avoid a resurgence of Jimmy McMillan’s political party. If you ask my depleted bank account, my two jobs, or my mom, who scolded me after I signed my own lease, the rent is still too damn high.