Katelynn Le/Sun Contributor

August 4, 2022

NGUYEN | The Tale of Cornell’s Broken Housing Market

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Long before I came face-to-face with the plagues of Collegetown — its cutthroat market competition, sky-high rental rates, substandard living conditions, unyielding housing inequality — I had already begun to hear whispers of its housing fiasco. I was still just a fresh face on campus, barely minutes into my first day at Cornell, when the Collegetown crisis crept onto my radar.

An Ithaca summer was in full swing. Some mixture of August humidity and first-day jitters had glazed a layer of sweat over my skin, and I remember feeling both sticky and bored in the early moments of a lecture. My attention only snapped into focus when, already minutes deep into class, the auditorium doors swung open. A girl with jet-black hair whizzed down the aisle and through the rows, then plopped down a few seats away from me. She had hardly collected her breath before exhaling:

“Oh my god. I just signed my lease for next year.”

Next year. I swear the words echoed. Next school year. It was still August. Classes had barely begun. My dorm still housed a suitcase of unpacked belongings, and I hadn’t even thought about how I’d decorate the walls of my new room.

Yet, moments into my first class and still lightyears away from a life in Collegetown, I was already taking mental note of a lesson that would prove valuable to me in the years to come: When August and September arrive, so too does open season for apartment hunting. The school year hardly begins before students start racing to sign leases — sometimes over a year before their leases actually start.

It was just my first glimpse at a housing market gone sideways.

At that point in college, my head was still stuck in the bubble of North Campus, where all first-years are required to dorm: I spent my freshman year eating at the Appel dining hall, running on treadmills at Helen Newman and goofing off in Jameson Hall’s Sky Lounge. But it wasn’t until after my freshman year — after I moved away from the mecca of first-years, after I ended my daily walks across Thurston Bridge and the spiderwebs that lined it — that I fully understood the magic of the first-year community. To dorm on North Campus was to experience a rare shred of Cornell’s equalizing power.

Regardless of background or history, all first-year students are inducted into Cornell via North Campus: This campus community is where freshmen develop their first friendships and find their footing at Cornell. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

An unexpected sense of unity saturates North Campus. Unexpected, of course, because Cornell — similar to most private universities in the United States — is infamous for its overrepresentation of the ultra-wealthy. My dorm assignment in Jameson dropped me onto the same floor as the son of a former NBA team CEO and the daughter of a celebrity restaurateur. I learned quickly that wealth and elitism lie at the bedrock of this school’s student population, and that the Cornell experience is one of imbalance. Alongside students who might’ve seen an Ivy League education as part of their birthright, there are other Cornellians living opposite college realities — students at Cornell on need-based scholarship, first-generation students, students who pick up a campus job (or two, or three) to gather some pocket change.

Yet, this imbalance is also what makes the first-year experience so unique: The North Campus dorm requirement corrals all of us, indiscriminately, into a closed community. Unexpected roommate match-ups are packed into doubles and forced triples. Living spaces and common rooms become mosaics of geographic, social and economic backgrounds. When I was a freshman, North Campus ushered all of us under the same Balch arches every morning. We all agonized over the same lagging stoplight on Thurston Avenue. We all trudged up the four flights of RPCC for hungover Sunday brunches. 

The first-year experience at Cornell is bound by a sense of shared community. We live side by side. We move as a collective. Living on North Campus feels like the beginnings of a reality where higher education might actually deliver on its promise as a Great Equalizer.

And then, we become sophomores.

That feeling of unity fractures once the end of freshman year arrives. Sophomore year scatters us all along the peripheries of campus: the grand residence halls of West Campus, the less impressive dorms south of Cascadilla Gorge, Greek housing and co-ops peppered beyond North and West. The new North Campus Residential Expansion project will disrupt this trend slightly by the 2022-2023 school year, with all sophomores soon being required to live on campus. But still, our second year remains one of separation until the gravity of off-campus housing pulls us back together again: By the time most Cornell undergraduates become juniors and seniors, we scrawl our names down on a Collegetown lease and enter the unmoored wild of Ithaca’s rental market.

As I had learned on my first day of classes, signing a lease in Ithaca is no simple matter. In the fall of my sophomore year, I signed my first lease in October — 10 months before I actually moved into my junior-year apartment. By then, I was already late to the housing rush. Each September, we hear stories of students who sleep on sidewalks overnight, waiting for rental offices to open up the next morning: “It’s like Black Friday,” one student told The Sun in 2019.

Even the local government has taken notice of this Collegetown anomaly. In 2013, the City of Ithaca started requiring landlords to give tenants at least 60 days’ notice before conducting new lease agreements — effectively trying to stall the annual housing rush. And still, the following year witnessed over 150 students camping out on Dryden Road to snag leases. Scrambling to book apartment tours, negotiating with friends over unaffordable rent prices and hastily signing leases are the hallmarks of an upperclassman’s early weeks of class.

But the lease-signing crunch, as pesky as it can get, is still only one piece of the Collegetown housing trainwreck.

Despite Collegetown’s notorious rent prices, the neighborhood’s rental properties are often rundown and poorly managed. It is the central contradiction that has come to define the neighborhood. (Ben Parker/Sun File Photo)

My first Collegetown apartment search turned up consistent price tags of over $1,000 per month. I remember the disbelief on my two roommates’ faces when they realized that these rent prices listed the monthly charge per person — not per unit. Here in Ithaca, a relatively minor city in upstate isolation, the housing market does not match its landscape. In 2014, The New York Times listed Ithaca as the 11th U.S. city with the least affordable rent. New York City had clinched 10th place by a narrow margin. In 2016, the Economy Policy Institute ranked Ithaca as the 8th most expensive city in the United States to raise a family. That same year, the average Ithacan spent 39 percent of their income on rental payments; a maximum of 30 percent is the rule-of-thumb standard used to measure housing affordability.

And, adding insult to injury, off-campus student rentals aren’t just expensive — they also underwhelm when it comes to quality.

The first Collegetown apartment I lived in, on North Quarry Street, housed a bevy of frustrations: a maze of a floorplan, countless spiders, broken laundry machines, a perpetually-clogged bathtub and a sink that showered the kitchen floor in water. We didn’t even have a living room in that apartment; whenever we wanted to spend time together, my roommates and I had no choice but to huddle in our cramped kitchen, sharing laughs under flickering fluorescents.

These inconveniences pale in comparison to other horror stories of off-campus living. Last school year, a friend of mine paid close to a four-digit monthly rent. Over their lease term, she and her roommates rode out a series of slippery misfortunes — from bathroom mold that triggered allergic reactions, to a burst pipe that collapsed a main wall, to worrying about housing displacement after discovering that their landlord had illegally signed too many tenants onto the lease. “Basically, if you’re not rich, if you can’t afford top-notch housing in Collegetown, you’re screwed,” explained my friend. An infamous Sun story in 2018 revealed that one student opted to spend nights in Uris Library after experiencing untenable living conditions through the Ithaca winter. 

These conditions leave student tenants frustrated and unsatisfied.  “It often feels incredibly exploitative,” said Alexandra Lilly ’24. “The [housing] options we do have are often poorly managed and falling apart.”

How exactly did we get here, paying sky-high rents in exchange for substandard housing? How did a humble college town in upstate New York become one of the least affordable zip codes in the United States? 

To piece together some answers, I turned to a number of local historical and academic sources. What I unearthed was a loose narrative of a small town warping under the weight of student demand. It is the story of tensions and unravelings — how town-and-gown forces shape a neighborhood, how concentrated supply and widespread demand erode a market and how our physical and social landscapes inform and affirm one another.

On a clear spring day, a student walks down College Avenue, blurring past a “For Rent” advertisement. Signs like these can be seen plastered all over Collegetown. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

Collegetown was never baked into the original blueprint of the Cornell vision. Instead, it developed organically, over the years, as a neighborhood shaped by student necessity. The school’s first president, A.D. White, famously advocated against on-campus housing, fearing the “carelessness, uproar and destruction” that student dorms would invite to the new university. So, when Cornell officially opened its doors in 1868, there were limited housing options for the 412 first Cornellians. A quarter of these students roomed in Cascadilla Hall, the school’s sole residence building; in a letter, A.D. White described Cascadilla Hall as “an ill-ventilated, ill-smelling, uncomfortable, ill-looking alms house.” The remaining students were crowded into campus rooms intended to serve as classrooms or were pushed into neighborhoods a mile away from campus. Still finding its footing in its opening year, Cornell University arrived in Ithaca with student housing already a source of headache.

Housing demand only grew more pressing as the school’s student enrollment increased in the years that followed. In response, new developments slowly populated the streets south of Cascadilla Gorge. Rooming houses cropped up along Heustis Street (now, College Avenue) and Eddy Street, laying out the groundwork for what would eventually become Collegetown. It was along these roads where the seedlings of a town-and-gown relationship were planted: Student demand was beginning to shape the local Ithaca landscape.

The stately Alpha Delta Phi house, constructed in 1903, stands tall at the end of Stewart Avenue. At the time of its construction, it drew a notable distinction from the shoddy rooming houses that the “independents” of Collegetown occupied. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

At the same time, another flavor of student housing began to emerge on the western edge of campus. Drenched in opulence and grandeur, fraternity houses entered the scene. These properties offered the best of Ithaca’s real estate: palatial mansions with sweeping views and top-notch architecture. They stood in stark contrast to the cheap rentals on Heustis and Eddy streets. According to Blake Gumprecht’s The American College Town, when Alpha Delta Phi sought to construct a new house in 1899, the brothers rejected the possibility of a Collegetown location — citing the “number of cheap, unattractive buildings” as a deterrent. A geographic divide wedged between the fraternity brothers that dominated Cornell’s social scene, and those who scholar Morris Bishop described as the “vast plebian mass, the independents, the outsides, the pills, the poops, the drips” of Collegetown. Gumprecht captures this dynamic bluntly: “Where the best of the fraternity houses were home to the undergraduate elite, Collegetown housed those students who were at the bottom of the Cornell ‘caste system.’”

The following decades inched the spattering of rooming houses closer to a bustling center of student life. Although Cornell eventually erected more residence halls for on-campus dorming, many students still turned to Collegetown for affordable rent and independent living. Development occurred gradually in the early 1900s, then ballooned in the post-WWII era as Cornell’s student enrollment spiked. New roads were paved. More single-family houses and apartment properties sprang up — homes for both students and working-class locals. A vibrant commercial energy swept into Collegetown, bringing grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops and other local businesses to the blooming neighborhood. 

Development marched on steadily for the next few decades; then, toward the end of the twentieth century, Collegetown rushed into a period of massive transformation. Amid the tumult of the 1970s, the neighborhood began to grow infamous in Ithaca. Local community members sought to resolve the rampant drug use, rowdy partying and disruptive student behavior that had come to define Collegetown. As a result, the late ’80s and ’90s — spurred by city leadership, private construction efforts and $40 million worth of Cornell investment — blanketed the neighborhood in construction dust. Towering cranes fractured the East Hill skyline. On the blocks closest to campus, new apartment high-rises replaced old wood-frame houses and tugged Collegetown upward. More students flooded in, pushing local families away from the University. The neighborhood took on a new look, beginning to resemble a mini-metropolis. It was the birth of the modern Collegetown: “For better or for worse, the old Collegetown is no more,” reported the Ithaca Journal in 1990.

On any given day of the academic year, Collegetown is abuzz with student life. Cornellians can be seen walking to campus, catching up with friends, studying for prelims or grabbing a bite from local eateries. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

It is this Collegetown, for the most part, that now stands at the foot of Cornell’s campus. At its core, Collegetown still functions as it did during its early years: as a refuge for Cornell students in need of housing. But at the same time, the neighborhood has taken on another life. Concrete canyons of eight-story apartment buildings punctuate blocks of century-old houses with small-town charm. Collegetown teems with both historical lore and kitsch modernity. The transaction between student life and local business still lies at the bedrock of Collegetown — but the relationship between the two has devolved into drastic imbalance.

While Collegetown’s earliest properties originally housed the “Cornell outcasts,” the neighborhood is now the site of highly sought-after real estate. Almost half of Cornell’s undergraduate population lives off-campus. Most of these students flock toward Collegetown as the prime destination for housing: Its proximity to campus and its centrality to student life make the neighborhood appealing to undergraduates. Not to mention, the contemporary rental crowd no longer resorts to Collegetown living for cheap and affordable lodging. With so many Cornellians hailing from wealthy backgrounds, many student tenants wield a considerable sum of market power. These students are able, and usually willing, to pay a premium for high-end housing. 

The Lux, a modern apartment complex on Summit Avenue, boasts a rooftop terrace, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a game room, a sauna and an outdoor fire pit lounge, among other lavish amenities. A single-bedroom apartment in The Lux is priced for as high as $2,625 per month.

“Where undergraduates in earlier periods would snap up cramped and dingy apartments in beat-up old houses, a new breed of students prefers modern buildings with greater amenities, while still wanting to live close to campus,” notes Gumprecht when discussing Cornellian renters in The American College Town.

This shift in tenant demographics has occurred alongside the overwhelming property takeover by private power. Collegetown, as varied and eclectic as its terrain appears, is managed by only a handful of landlords. In 2013, The Sun reported that just eight landlords owned roughly two-thirds of Collegetown’s housing property, summing up to approximately $153 million. These entities pull the puppet strings of Collegetown. Take a look at Jason Fane, a tsar of Ithaca’s real estate scene since the 1970s. It was his Ithaca Renting Company’s construction efforts that largely restructured the neighborhood in the late ’80s. You can’t walk through today’s Collegetown without noticing Fane’s titanic properties: Collegetown Center, Collegetown Plaza, Collegetown Court, Aces Apartments. This consolidation of power renders Collegetown an urban playground for landlords and developers.

Walking down College Avenue after class, I’d gotten used to tiptoeing around the broken sidewalks and construction machines. For the past several months, the corner of College Avenue and Catherine Street has housed a fenced-off swath of land, a tract of former real estate razed to the ground. It’s the first piece of the most ambitious development undertaking to ever hit East Hill: the Collegetown “Innovation District.” The proposal aims to reconstruct a main vein of Collegetown, straddling Catherine Street between shiny towers of residential, office and retail space. It’s the type of project to completely facelift a neighborhood, bringing Collegetown closer to modern urbanity. And — in typical Collegetown fashion — it’s a project spearheaded by private interest. One man behind the curtain is developer John Novarr, recently responsible for the constructions of the Breazzano Center and Collegetown Terrace. In 2013, he owned over $38 million worth of Collegetown real estate. Today, that number has leaped undoubtedly higher. By the time the Innovation District construction wraps up in 2025, Ithaca will have once again witnessed private power deciding the urban fabric of East Hill.

An empty construction lot now lies at the corner of College Avenue and Catherine Street — the first step in piecing together the transformative Collegetown “Innovation District.” One can expect even more construction to hit this area in the months to come. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

These two realities of Collegetown — a surplus of well-to-do college students in need of housing and a rental market under concentrated landlord power — collide into a breeding ground for housing inequality. In his article “Renting in Collegetown” in the Cornell Law Review, Daniel E. Wenner J.D. ’99 breaks down the conditions that have deteriorated Collegetown. Like in other college towns, Ithaca’s overwhelming student population naturally drives up rent prices. College students typically search for short-term leases, often in highly condensed neighborhoods of in-demand real estate. Thus, landlords are met with a robust tenant market. They are able to charge rents far higher than their standard rate. Wenner refers to college-student renters as a “captive population.”

Other market factors further exacerbate this formula. Ithaca’s geographic isolation in upstate New York creates a limited supply of housing. Tenants are forced to rely on the city’s main landlords for rental properties. Not to mention, Cornell’s lofty room-and-board fees allow landlords to set high rent rates that still appear comparable to on-campus housing.

But the market grows particularly lopsided when factoring in Cornell’s wealthy student population and the tight market control of landlords; we see this most evidently as landlords embark on new development projects. John Schroeder ’74, former Chair of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board and the current Sun Alumni Advisor, called the Collegetown situation an “oligarchy [that] seeks to appeal to the very high-end market.” In 2009, Ithaca’s Common Council endorsed, then began carrying out, the ​​Collegetown Urban Plan and Design Guidelines — a vision to move the neighborhood up with the times. But when the plan conflicted with private interest, Ithaca’s chief property owners and their lawyers pushed back. It took years of back-and-forth for the city to navigate a new urban plan until the city eventually caved. Landlords walked away victorious. Zoning restrictions were eased, developers were met with new freedoms, and soon after, another construction boom hit Collegetown.

 “There has been a huge amount of development in Collegetown since the time the Collegetown Plan was enacted. Vast amounts. But rent has not come down. Rents continue to be sky-high,” said Schroeder. “You have an oligarchical situation in which all of the oligarchical members are seeking to push the highest rents up as high as they can.”

Since the Collegetown Plan, the neighborhood’s largest construction efforts have concentrated on costly apartment buildings. Collegetown Terrace, a sprawling complex constructed in 2014, charges up to $1795 for a studio apartment. The new, monstrous Student Agencies building landed in Collegetown less than a year ago. Its most expensive one-bedroom apartment goes for $2,550 per month. The glossy Innovation District proposal has promised to direct $3 million toward affordable housing and local projects — but with its metropolitan ambitions and a price tag of $145 million, the project will likely allot even more prime real estate for the neighborhood’s elite.

This trend of costly construction impacts the entire housing market. “When this development occurs, the landlords with lower quality units raise their rents on the basis of the following two facts: (1) the market will bear higher rents … and (2) a rent increase will not lower the demand,” explains Wenner in “Renting in Collegetown.”

In essence, as new developments continue appealing to wealthier tenants, the rest of Collegetown suffers. For most students, housing quality remains substandard while rent prices continue to hike. Landlords line their pockets with outsized rent rates. Meanwhile, Ithaca’s less privileged students and local populations face the fallout: a dearth of affordable living units, the enduring displacement of Ithacan residents, the high turnover of local businesses, a rising median rent rate that impacts the entire city, a bolstering of the socioeconomic status quo.

We’re lucky, though, that tireless local efforts have urged the city to address the Collegetown crisis. In March 2020, a handful of Cornell undergraduates created the Ithaca Tenants Union, which aims to protect renters’ rights through the collective power of local tenants. The union has already been successful in levying action against Ithaca’s landlording powers. And, just this past April, the Common Council approved a provision that doubled the amount of time until landlords can begin rental renewal processes. The measure took effect on May 31. It will hopefully reduce the Collegetown housing rush and provide tenants with adequate time to explore their rental options.

Houses stand on Eddy Street on May 8, 2022. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

Some movement has rippled in from the University side as well. By this next school year, Cornell’s North Campus Expansion Project will require all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus or in University-affiliated housing. This move will effectively shrink the pool of Collegetown renters and further ease the lease-signing season. 

Though it’ll take dramatic, transformative action to fully remedy our broken housing system, the approaching months may witness some positive change. Collegetown’s housing crunch may loosen, its intense market competition may subside and student renters may enjoy slightly more tenant freedoms. With continued collective support for local initiatives in the years ahead, there may be hope to push the needle of Collegetown closer toward housing equity.

The glimmering amnesia of our college years is a funny thing. Only those who have lived in the thick of Collegetown can fully grasp its magic: Beer pitchers at CTB. Legs dangling off roofs on Catherine Street. Fated collisions with freshman-year friends. Laughter ringing through the 7/11 aisles — the excuse to mess around with friends more of a treat than the convenience-store snacks after a long night of studying. 

It’s a magic best felt when experiencing our first freedoms away from home. When racing up and down Eddy with tequila in our breaths and wind whipping through our hair. When feeling as invincible, unbreakable and electric as anyone should at the onset of young adulthood. 

Because Collegetown, home to the students on the Hill, is more than just a physical space — it’s also the thoroughfare for our youth.

Like almost every Cornellian before us, we all wander into Collegetown with the promise to be a mythmaker for a few brief years. To live out the stories we’ll tell for eternity, to our future spouses, then our children, and then maybe, their children too. By the time we exit Ithaca after graduation, we can drive wistfully away from Collegetown, grateful that it let us be neighborhood legends.

The neighborhood on the Hill, Collegetown has long been the nucleus of Cornell’s student life. But as the rental market has spiraled over the years, community members are left to wonder: Who does Collegetown belong to? (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor)

But, the rosiness of nostalgia has a way of blurring reality. Will we remember how inequality trickled down its sloped and potholed streets? How it flooded the rest of the city? Will we remember how Collegetown shaped our social ecosystem according to economic bracket? Who was able, and willing, to dish out $1,500 a month for an upmarket apartment near campus? Who was forced to take on extra jobs and trade in decent living conditions to afford rent? 

It might not be until several years later, when we visit as alumni, that we return and confront the cracks of this urban product. Staple businesses and local favorites shuttered. Shiny towers of gentrification reaching up toward the Ithaca sun. A neighborhood that no longer feels like ours. 

And just like that, the Collegetown promise of neighborhood immortality — of legend and lore, of bottled lightning — might wash away entirely. Memories boarded up along with our old haunts. Bought up, razed to the ground, redeveloped, then wallpapered over.

That is, after all, what seems to happen to anything worthwhile in the neighborhood far above Cayuga’s waters.

Niko Nguyen ’22 is a recent graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This is the final installment of his column Fault Line. Comments can be sent to [email protected].

Correction: John Schroeder’s ’74 class year was originally written as ’72. It is ’74.