ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca’s affordable housing crisis is a complicated, multi-faceted problem that Mayor Myrick said cannot be solved with a “silver bullet”—one single policy or a single housing project.
To solve the crisis, Myrick said, “There’s got to be a many-part strategy that includes building subsidized housing, market-rate housing, student off-campus housing, and on-campus housing.”
“It’s all one market,” he explained. “It’s impossible to hurt one without hurting the other, and it’s impossible to help one without helping the other. If we build more student housing, that will help permanent residents; if we built more housing for permanent residents, that will help students.”
Both Myrick and JoAnn Cornish, the city’s Director of Economic Development and Planning, therefore consider Cornell’s plan to build more on-campus housing to be in-line with the city’s strategy in stymieing the housing crisis.
Cornish said, “If they can build on-campus, it is certainly more beneficial to the city. We collect a lot of property taxes in Collegetown.” So, she added, developing on Cornell’s already tax-exempt land does not take properties off of the city’s tax rolls.
“One of the reasons that the housing market is so tight is that so many students are competing with permanent residents for rental housing,” Myrick said. “To the degree that we can get students back in dormitory housing, that helps the market for everyone.”
Cornell has a far larger impact on rents than IC, Cornish says
Ithaca College, a decidedly residential college, houses just under seventy-five percent of its 6,000 students on-campus. Over half of Cornell’s about 14,000 undergraduates, on the other hand, live off-campus.
“IC is able to house many of their students on-campus,” Cornish said. But “we know through Cornell’s recent housing study that there are many students who would like to live on campus, but there isn’t that housing stock there, so they have to look into the community.”
The demand for off-campus housing in Collegetown, she said, drives up the cost of housing throughout the city.
According to the study Cornish cited, seventy-eight percent of Cornell undergraduates would prefer to live in on-campus housing. To meet that demand, Cornell is planning to expand its number of beds on-campus in order to house more sophomores in dormitories; at the same time, the university anticipates increasing enrollment to pay for the endeavor, weakening the macro-level impact of the new housing developments.
That strategy, Cornish said, “is probably more in reaction to what their students are looking for … the side benefit is that it might have a small impact on the shortage of housing, but that’s secondary to their business plan.”
Cornish calls housing safety concerns “one of the most pressing issues in Ithaca”
As a Cornell student, years before declaring the affordable housing crisis the “largest threat” to the City of Ithaca, Mayor Myrick witnessed firsthand the difficulties of finding both affordable and safe housing in Ithaca.
While completing his junior year at Cornell, like many undergraduates, he lived off-campus in Collegetown with a few friends on College Avenue.
During finals week, in the basement of his building, some faulty electrical wiring led to a fire. “The city came in and found that [the wiring] had been done without permits for years, so they shut the house down.”
“So,” Myrick recalled in a phone interview, “We got evicted during finals week … and my landlord at the time never reimbursed us.”
“It was extremely expensive,” he said, and “the quality was low.”
The dueling ideals of housing quality and housing affordability are two of the most important, and sometimes intertwined, issues the city is confronting. Ken Danter, who last year authored a downtown housing market study on behalf of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, told the Voice that the quality of housing in Ithaca simply doesn’t match the city’s rental prices.
The mitigation of unsafe housing, therefore, is “one of the most pressing issues in Ithaca,” Cornish said.
She explained that the high demand for housing in Ithaca, particularly in Collegetown, has caused some landlords to make unsafe decisions with their properties. “What were once single-family homes have been cut up into several bedrooms,” Cornish said. “A lot of them have had partition walls put up, in order to make extra bedrooms.”
This, along with the fact that older structures in the area sometimes lack a sprinkler system, can cause problems for firefighters and emergency responders, Cornish said. These irregular layouts, she explained, in emergency situations, can cause confusion for responders, making it “difficult to fight fires and to really protect life and safety.”
Some progress, but much more to be done, Myrick says
Myrick said that although rents in the city are still rising, they are rising at a slower rate than he’s seen in the past.
“If you talk to landlords right now, they warn that their prices are already slowing. ‘Oh god,’ they say. They’re not filling their apartments as fast as they used to,” Myrick said.“If this continues, they’ll have to lower their prices.”
Myrick emphasized that there is still much more work to be done to make housing more affordable in the city. “I still don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “But I think we are beginning to get there.”
Myrick said that he sometimes researches other cities undergoing housing crises of their own. What he’s found—both by looking at large cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, he said, as well as smaller cities that resemble Ithaca more closely in terms of size—is that cities fail to address their crises when they refuse to build new housing.
If Ithaca fails to develop more and more housing projects at all price points and for all sections of the market, he said, the city could “turn into an elitist enclave that has no middle- or working-class.”
“I think if we keep making aggressive moves, like adding housing in Collegetown, on-campus, at Chainworks … while continuing to subsidize housing like INHS, eventually, the cost of housing will become more reasonable.”
“If all of those boxes are checked,” Myrick predicted that the city “should be looking at a three-to-five year period where rents grow more slowly. But “if they’ll go down,” he admitted, “I don’t know.”