TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — One of the biggest, tirelessly discussed issues locally is the need for housing, and especially housing that’s affordable. Though Tompkins County has affordable housing-related initiatives and strategies, legislators cannot actually invest local tax dollars into affordable housing. New state legislation may change that.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton is sponsoring a bill that would make it possible for Tompkins County to spend local tax dollars on the “development, maintenance or management of affordable housing,” and Sen. Tom O’Mara is planning to introduce a bill in the Senate, his office confirmed Wednesday.

“Tompkins County faces a significant affordable housing shortage, and I am glad to sponsor this bill that makes it clear that the county can spend its money on affordable housing projects,” Lifton said in a news release. “Currently, without this clarification, the county is spending federal money on housing projects, but will be authorized to spend potentially millions more in local money to help relieve our housing crisis if this bill is signed into law.”

Tompkins County, with a unanimously supported resolution in 2018, previously urged the state to amend a section of law to allow counties like Tompkins to appropriate funds to the development of affordable housing. They reaffirmed that resolution in March, asking that the New York State Legislature amend Section 224 of the New York State County Law to clearly articulate that counties like Tompkins can use local funds to assist in developing, maintaining and managing affordable housing. The resolution states that without it, counties are “largely powerless” without federal or state funding for affordable housing projects.

“Without the authority to spend local resources on affordable housing, counties in the state of New York are facing a crisis in affordable housing development, as Federal and State funding for this urgent and critical need may be significantly cut in the future,” the resolution states.

It goes on to say that the inadequate supply of housing paired with an older housing stock compromises the health and safety of people in the community who may be forced to live in unsafe housing conditions or use resources that might be needed to pay for food, medicine and clothing to secure housing for themselves and their families.

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As much as affordable housing is a continuous topic of concern locally, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson said people may be surprised to learn that Tompkins County currently cannot spend local money on affordable housing. In 2018, Robertson suggested putting aside $3 million for a Housing Capital Reserve Fund to give affordable housing projects a boost. But, as it turned out, local governments in New York do not have clear authority under the state constitution to spend local money on housing. The proposed bill would clarify that Tompkins County can under New York State County Law Section 224.

Since 2009, there has been a Community Housing Development Fund, which is a joint effort between Tompkins County, Cornell University and the City of Ithaca. The fund is designed to help the development of local housing that is affordable for low- to moderate-income households. Currently, the county contributes $100,000 per year to the fund with federal money. Robertson said over the years, the housing fund has seen more and more interest from developers and there are a number of projects in the pipeline. She said over the next two years, they are expecting to have 15 applicants that could add 400 units, and would be seeking more than $2.5 million from the Community Housing Fund.

If the proposed bill passes, it would allow the county to discuss contributing more to the fund as one way to support affordable housing units.

“I don’t foresee millions of dollars from the county going into affordable housing. I’ll take whatever we can get,” Robertson said. “We know where it’s needed, we know that it’s needed. I have seen a little bit of money go a long way in terms of leveraging other resources.”

Lifton’s bill does not have a number assigned yet in the Assembly.

Featured image: File photo of Habitat for Humanity build in Tompkins County.

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.