January 27, 2019

VALDETARO | How Cornell Can Help Combat Ithaca’s Housing Crisis

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As the spring semester kicks into gear — and essays, problem sets and prelims become the first and foremost concerns for many students —  freshmen will have another task that demands their attention: finding housing for next year. As Christian Baran noted in The Sun last semester, such a task quickly becomes formidable due to a dearth of not only information, but of good options, as evidenced by The Sun’s reporting on a student sleeping in Uris Library last semester due to his housing situation.

These housing issues don’t just stop at the borders of Cornell’s campus, though. The housing market is warped and inhospitable to residents throughout the entirety of Ithaca. With under half of the University’s undergraduate students housed on campus, half of the city’s apartment market is occupied by students. The median rent in the city nearly doubled between 2000 and 2016, going from 32 percent of median income to 39 percent, well above the 30 percent threshold of gross income spent on rent that the government uses to designate a household as financially burdened. There are currently only three neighborhoods in Ithaca in which it isn’t difficult for low-income residents to reside: Southside, Washington Park and West Hill.

The University hasn’t entirely ignored these problems. The Office of Off-Campus Living is dedicated and works hard to try to ensure students aren’t neglected by their landlords. The plan to expand housing on North Campus might reduce some strain on the city’s housing market, despite the plan requiring the admission of more students. And yet, the entire Cornell community, from administrators to professors to students, could do more to address Ithaca’s broader affordable housing crisis.

University administration has the greatest ability to remedy this problem, even if that is because they have been both so derelict in ensuring a certain baseline student experience and so carefree about the consequences of the University’s presence on locals’ quality of life. Given that the results of the University’s own Housing Master Plan Survey indicated that there were more undergraduate students who wanted on-campus housing than were currently living on campus, and the outsized effect that Cornell students have on the housing market, plans to increase on-campus housing should be expanded, without requiring that more students enroll in the University.

For the population of students living off campus, the University could strengthen the Office of Off-Campus Living. Currently staffed by only one (yes, one) person, a more forceful version of this office could not only help more students find better housing, but could also help students negotiate prices and advocate more forcefully when landlords aren’t ensuring their properties are up to code. A fortification of this office could then be accompanied by trying to influence the Ithaca Common Council to give more power to the Building Division to enforce building codes, thereby keeping students safer. Finally, given that the Housing Master Plan Survey shed light on graduate students’ desires for bus stops and sidewalks to campus in their housing, the University could increase its contribution to the city and county so that publicly funded infrastructure such as the TCAT service and sidewalk coverage could be improved and expanded.

Beyond the more centrally planned efforts that only the University’s administration has the resources to execute, professors and students could contribute in more creative ways. As home to one of the best architecture programs in the nation, as well as top tier programs in urban planning and policy analysis and management, professors could make addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing part of their curriculum. As much as I appreciate the long-practiced tradition of Dragon Day, imagine the potential of a challenge or class requirement to design some form of affordable housing unit and plan the community it would belong in. In addition to putting effort into such long-term ideas, students can help combat Ithaca’s housing problems by using their purchasing power to hold landlords accountable. If rents in collegetown continue to be too high, housing options further down East Hill and all the way in Fall Creek should be considered, given the availability of TCAT to provide transportation.

While more difficult to ignore the concerns of paying customers (I mean, students), it is possible for the University to ignore the concerns of local Ithacans. With an increasing presence near Amazon’s soon-to-be second-headquarters in New York City, administrators can choose to continue to shift their attention away from the main campus, which is more above Ithaca than of Ithaca. However, it would be a disgrace to Ezra Cornell and A. D. White’s dream of a university enmeshed and involved in, instead of disconnected and isolated from, its surrounding community as well as a disservice to the city that Cornell has called home for more than 150 years, for the University to treat the current housing situation as anything less than it is: a crisis worthy of the University’s full creative potential and might.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting the Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com.