September 13, 2021

MEIDENBAUER | Cornell and The Ithaca Affordable Housing Crisis

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It’s time to burst the Big Red bubble

Housing.  If you’re a Cornell student, that’s probably a word that freaks you out. It may remind you of your friends trying to convince you to sign a lease that may or may not actually be a good idea in the long run.  

Affordable housing is a related, but separate issue entirely.  The affordable housing crisis in Ithaca has gotten to a point where Cornell employees can no longer afford to live in the city — problematic considering Cornell is the largest employer.  

What exactly is affordable housing, you ask?  As defined by HUD, housing is defined as ‘affordable’ if payment constitutes 30% or less of your monthly income.  For too many people, safe, reliable, affordable housing is inaccessible for a variety of reasons.  Ithaca is not immune to this, in fact, Cornell perpetuates the issue. In July, The Ithaca Voice released a two-part documentary series on YouTube titled Home; it provides a great overview of the housing crisis in our city.  

One heavy point of consideration is Cornell’s role in all of this.  If Cornell was responsible for paying property taxes as is the rest of the city, the amount would equal a staggering $35 million a year.  That’s a significant chunk of funds that everyone else has to compensate for.  While there is an agreement between the city and the school, do the benefits of being a college town outweigh the cost?

Though Cornell is mentioned in the documentary, no one from Cornell administration was interviewed.  Not only that, but Cornell is continually displacing Ithacans. The University has a long history of displacement — as a land grant institution, the University profited off lands stolen from Native Americans as part of the Morrill Act.  In fact, we still have a building designated to this messed up historical legacy, Morrill Hall, which is directly beside Ezra Cornell’s statue in bitter irony.  This is a nuanced issue that deserves to be discussed in its own right. 

Yet, displacement is still occurring in Ithaca now.  As Collegetown prices grow ever more competitive, longtime residents are forced further and further down the hill.  Desperate college students are willing to pay ridiculous prices, sometimes even for terrible apartments that are a disgrace to the word ‘home’.  Thanks to Cornell, there will always be a surplus demand in Collegetown, and as those of us living here know, that’s a fact landlords are all too willing to exploit.  

As far as research will expand the cerebral folds of my brain, Cornell employees are paid well above minimum wage.  The anonymous employee interviewed by the Ithaca Voice mentioned a salary of $18/ hour- that’s well above the national minimum wage of $7.25. However, it’s still not enough for the inflated living prices in the city.  

This isn’t limited to Ithaca- it’s an issue all of America is facing.  The average minimum wage worker can’t afford rent anywhere in America.  Perpetuated by a pandemic and rising unemployment, Ithaca is certainly no exception.  

Yet, many Cornellians, including myself, were completely unaware of the housing crisis in our own city.  This is true for many of us  —we’re part of the Cornell bubble atop the hill, oblivious to how we impact the community we’re inevitably a part of. 

So what can we do about it? 

Like so many social justice issues, there isn’t one perfect solution.  It’s important we support the non-profit organizations doing incredible work in the Ithaca area.  Currently, the city is bolstered by the collective efforts of these organizations, such as the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services.  This organization especially does a lot of tremendous work; not only are they creating new homes but they update homes for the elderly to ensure safe living conditions, and even provide open workshops on all things housing for community members.  They’re undeniably supporting the community, but non-profits shouldn’t be the backbone of housing accessibility. Something needs to change.  

For Cornell specifically, the North Campus expansion project could be a really good opportunity to mitigate some of the damage; though instead of increasing enrollment with the facilities, the University should focus on attracting and housing current students.  The requirement to live on campus through sophomore year should help ease the pressure of students in Collegetown, but is it enough? 

This is where it’s gonna get controversial- Cornell should pay the city more in taxes.  Maybe not necessarily in the full $35 million amount, but I’d love to know how their budget is so strapped despite the roughly 80k tuition collected annually from each student. Attracting students and doing research projects that may or may not be actually helpful was never enough.  As an academic institution that prides itself on “any person, any study”, Cornell should not be forcing people out in its wake, or silencing their voices.

Only time will tell whether or not the housing situation will actually change.  But, if nothing else, clearly we need to learn more about the city we live in.  Our actions have impacts beyond our intentions.

Lorelei Meidenbauer ’22 is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Hot-takes and Handshakes runs every other Tuesday this semester.