ITHACA, N.Y. — Some families struggle to pay for groceries. Others scrimp to buy clothing for their children.
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But if there’s something that tends to unify the applicants to Ithaca’s new affordable housing complex on Spencer Road, it’s this: They’re spending a big portion of their generally low incomes on housing, and that leaves little money for other expenses.
“People in Ithaca are paying 50 percent or more of their monthly income just for a place to live,” says Paul Mazzarella, executive director of the non-profit Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, which built the new Stone Quarry site. “And when you do that, it doesn’t leave much for other things.”
As a result, about 150 families have applied to live in the sleek, new, affordable homes in Ithaca’s quiet southwest corner. But there are only 35 units available.
The unavoidable math leads to a difficult selections process in which officials are tasked with figuring out which families will get a coveted spot, and which will come away empty-handed.
“It’s hard,” Mazzarella says. “We see so many people who have housing needs, and it’s heartbreaking to not be able to serve everybody. We just don’t have enough units.”
The Stone Quarry Apartment complex was approved in 2014 over the strenuous objections of the many of the proposed project’s neighbors and many of the elected officials who represent them.
See related: Long-simmering fight over affordable housing plan ends amid mayor’s emotional plea
Mayor Svante Myrick, INHS and several other city officials supported the project, saying it would bring badly needed low- and middle-income housing to Ithaca.
Common Council members Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal have opposed the project, along with many of the neighbors of the area, for a variety of reasons.
Brock, who articulated her objections in a letter to the Ithaca Voice here, worries that the site is environmentally contaminated. She and many of the project’s other critics also say INHS failed to notify the neighbors of the site and that the project creates a dangerous pedestrian intersection.
Still, despite large and passionate crowds that turned up at City Hall to defeat the project, INHS won the necessary approvals from the city. The project held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in August as its first tenants moved in, but most of the properties remain empty.
How will INHS decide who gets a slot in the housing project?
For other developments, INHS has held live lotteries at which families would gather to learn the outcome. “You select people who are really happy,” Mazzarella says, “but there are many more people who are unhappy because they didn’t get selected.”
See related: Ithaca official who opposed Stone Quarry: ‘We should go forward together’
That won’t be the case here, though the result will be much the same.
For the Stone Quarry units, INHS is putting all the eligible names in a computer program that established the order in which the applications are considered. (There are three randomized lotteries, one for each of the three sizes of bedrooms at the complex — one, two and three units.) INHS goes through the applications one by one, deciding whether to accept or reject it, before sending a formal letter with the results.
One factor INHS will ask about and consider, according to Mazzarella, is if an applicant has been convicted of a crime.
“If the answer is yes, it doesn’t automatically disqualify you,” Mazzarella says. “A felony is a much more serious issue, and I think certain kinds of crimes would be of greater concern … Very few of our applicants have criminal histories.”
Also critical: If the tenant gets a letter of recommendation from a prior landlord; if he or she has paid rent on time historically; and, similarly if the tenant had a record of being a good neighbor at prior residences.
“Their past performance as tenants is very important to us,” Mazzarella says.
The application to live in Stone Quarry — with its 16 townhomes and 19-unit apartment building — also asks for potential residents’ disability requirements and levels of government assistance. (There are also specially designated slots reserved for the formerly homeless.)
Many applicants have court judgements against them, often related to medical bills. “That’s common — it doesn’t disqualify you, though, because we understand lower income people have a harder time with those kinds of things,” he said.
Less acceptable is if a tenant was delinquent about paying his or her rent for three to four months before leaving the property.
“We don’t want someone with a pattern of doing it,” Mazzarella says.
Then the tenants also have to be able to meet their new obligations: The rent at Stone Quarry ranges $375 from $1,250, depending on the size of the unit.
“There are low-income people and this is low income housing,” Mazzarella says, “but they still have to have enough money to pay the rent.”
The tenants are overwhelmingly from the Ithaca area, Mazzarella says. The recently opened Breckenridge apartments had 50 units; 49 residents were from Tompkins County, and the 50th was from Ithaca initially, moved to Pennsylvania and was coming back home.
“One of the perpetual myths of this type of housing is … that when you build a new unit like this it attracts people from outside our community,” Mazzarella says. “But the reality is that almost everybody who lives in all INHS housing is already in this area, and they’re looking for better or more affordable housing than what they’re presently living in.”
If there’s any small upside to having to turn away eager families, it may be this: Mazzarella says his staff comes away from the selections process energized about the need to build more affordable housing in Ithaca. (Some applicants rejected from Stone Quarry have also found other INHS housing, Mazzarella says.)
“We’re acutely aware of what the need is in the community, and we’re aware of how hard it is to meet the demand that’s out there,” Mazzarella says. “It’s virtually impossible.”
So far, about 10 families have moved into Stone Quarry. Many more, meanwhile, are waiting for their letter from INHS to come in the mail.
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