Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Tompkins Legislator Martha Robertson and Mayor Svante Myrick.
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Bus To Nature: Route 22
We have a housing crisis in our community. It affects every one of us, not just people trying to move here for work, school, or retirement. This crisis — a dire shortage of rental and for-sale housing at all price points — is getting worse every year.
This crisis drives costs up for everyone. It pushes our assessments up, and therefore our taxes. People are forced to live far from their jobs, creating costly congestion and damage to our infrastructure. Public transit is over-stretched to serve the 15,000 in-commuters daily, as well as those within the county who live outside TCAT’s range.
Anyone concerned about economic justice should be extremely upset about this crisis. People are really hurting.
Unfortunately, the people most hurt don’t have the time to lobby for more housing; they’re busy working just to pay the bills — often more than one job — and commuting. They’re invisible.
In particular, low-to-moderate income renters face a desperate and growing affordability gap. HUD defines housing as “affordable” if a household spends no more than 30 percent of its income on housing costs. Unfortunately, data show that almost a third of all non-student renters in Tompkins County pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent. They manage by scrimping everywhere else: health care, clothing, even food. Demand on our food pantries keeps growing, as families struggle to keep their housing at the expense of life’s other necessities. Unstable, unsafe, unaffordable housing adds to mental health and substance abuse challenges, hurts children’s school performance, and keeps renters from saving to become homeowners.
Concerned about environmental sustainability? You should be very disturbed by this crisis. Study after study shows that denser living has a lower carbon footprint than sprawl. If more housing is not built in the already-developed parts of our county, it will be built elsewhere —increasingly along our rural roads, swallowing up productive farmland and cherished green spaces, and forcing people to drive more. Sprawl increases other public costs as well, for schools, roads, emergency services, and more.
But people ask: “There’s been so much construction lately! Don’t we have enough housing in the works?” No. The county’s 2006 needs assessment projected that countywide, we’d need at least 2,127 new rental units by 2014 to meet the documented demand. We have built nowhere near that number.
In fact, all the new construction is not keeping up with existing demand. Between 2005 and 2014, Cornell University added 2,400 new graduate students and undergrads. During almost that same period — 2006 to 2014 — there have only been 657 new units completed in the City of Ithaca. The gap is widening.
But that’s not all. Cornell’s plans are to grow even faster in the next five years, adding 1,300 undergrad and graduate students.
This is not to criticize Cornell. Their policy is that off-campus housing pays taxes and supports the community directly, while on-campus dorms are exempt from property taxes. Even if Cornell were to decide tomorrow to build new on-campus housing, that would take years.
It takes more than three years from start to finish for new housing projects. For our neighbors who are hurting, for the sake of the environment, we have no time to lose. Housing demand is so strong because ours is a special community, including our culture that values social equity and environmental sustainability.
We must make the most of this enviable position, welcoming new people and becoming an even more inclusive community, and preserving the community we cherish.
— Martha Robertson is a Tompkins County legislator and Housing Fund chairwoman.
— Svante Myrick is mayor of the City of Ithaca.