ITHACA, N.Y.—A compromise could be on the horizon between Newfield town officials and Second Wind Cottages as Second Wind aims to expand its options for those battling housing instability.
Officials had an extended discussion on Friday with Second Wind leadership in the development’s central trailer. The meeting was essentially meant to clear the air between the Town of Newfield and Second Wind, two entities that have found themselves at odds over Second Wind’s hastily assembled application for funding from the Tompkins Community Recovery Fund for an expansion, partially fueled by their frustration at the gradual progress of the city of Ithaca’s TIDES plan.
Second Wind’s proposal would build 25 cabin structures and a central bathroom and kitchen space on land behind Second Wind’s existing 18 cottages aimed at helping address the area’s growing unhoused population.
Attendees included Newfield Town Supervisor Michael Allinger, members of the town board, Second Wind officials David Shapiro, Mike Foster and Deb Wilkie, as well as Second Wind’s founder, Carmen Guidi. In December, when Second Wind’s proposal became public, the Newfield Town Board penned a letter voicing its strenuous objection to the plan and the fact that it wasn’t notified or included in the planning process before it was presented.
Tompkins County Legislator Randy Brown brought those concerns to the legislature while it was debating which applications would be awarded money out of the $6.5 million pool, with legislators opting for a half-measure — Second Wind’s application for $650,000 in funding would not be rejected outright, but a second vote on the proposal will take place once an environmental review was conducted on the project, a process led by Newfield.
Progress had been made by the end of the meeting, though nothing was set in stone. Shapiro began floating the idea of lowering the number of housing structures introduced, and thus the number of people housed on the site. Second Wind’s initial application for funding set the number at 25 people living in newly constructed cabins, which would be smaller and leaner than the cottages that currently sit on the land. That idea, while certainly not official, seemed to gain some traction among the group and allayed some of the stated fears over a lack of emergency response capability and the ability of Second Wind’s limited staff to adequately handle more people.
“What I think does need to happen, is the county needs to allow us to revise our proposal to build more, but fewer, cottages,” Shapiro said after the meeting, meaning the full 25 seemed like a dubious goal but that a smaller figure could work better, at least in the short-term. “That’s what I’m hearing people want. This model of housing. [Supervisor Allinger] said to me, ‘You guys have set a standard, and you don’t want to create an environment where you have the haves and the have-nots.’ That’s a really excellent point. But if we can convince the county to let us use the money to build 10 to 15 cottages instead of 25 cabins, that’s a huge win for Second Wind.”
Allinger echoed cautious optimism after the meeting as well, particularly about the revised proposal of a lower number of new housing structures. The trepidation is still evident, but it seemed like the face-to-face time had a beneficial impact even if questions remain about the particulars.
Allinger noted that he thought periodic reports from Second Wind to Newfield officials would go even further to garner support from officials and the community, particularly about what the operational definition of “low barrier” entry would mean in practice. Allinger also noted that he would like to see progress on a long-planned community center on the site which would theoretically be a place to house services or resources helpful to residents of Second Wind.
“Those are the kind of things that they’re going to have to figure out, how to keep the town in the loop about the kind of people they’re getting to live there,” Allinger said.
The debate, on its face, shares some facets with classic NIMBYism issues, not at all unique to the Newfield community. Similar debates have arisen in Ithaca and Trumansburg, just in recent memory, surrounding affordable housing projects. But Newfield’s publicly stated objections have centered on the local emergency response burden and the aforementioned fears of the site’s rapid growth, which (at least under the current proposal) would have been a change from Second Wind’s gradual expansion of a few new cottages every few years, though that was all before the COVID-19 pandemic halted any further building.
“What I’m concerned about is the rapid growth,” Allinger said. “They’ve been very careful about their intake. I wouldn’t want to see them in a situation where they have too many homes to fill and just look to fill them, which is what I envision happening with the cabins. […] I think what they need — and I think they’re in agreement on this — is getting their community center built and start getting services out there and thinking about how they can, not police their people 24/7, but have someone there who can respond to emergency situations or when one of their [people] is in crisis.”
One of the many topics discussed was about Second Wind’s plans to hire someone who would, potentially, live on or near the site in a house currently owned by Guidi as part of their employment agreement. With some extensive training built in, that would enable that person to respond if a true emergency situation unfolded at the site.
Several Second Wind residents were also at the meeting, speaking about how the housing development had provided them with a safe haven for varying amounts of time, allowing them to overcome addiction and legal issues while they had a safe roof over their heads and a supportive community around them.
One example arose during the conversation, prompted by a question from a town board member about how increasing the population would impact the sobriety of Second Wind residents who have battled addiction. Those residents in attendance said it wouldn’t impact them; Guidi went further, mentioning how one of the residents in the room had camped out at a neighboring cottage for three days because its occupant had relapsed and needed help and support.
“I’m talking about camping out, making sure this guy stayed safe,” Guidi said. “We are not a drug and alcohol rehabilitation place. We’re not that, we’re not a lockdown. It was designed that way. Our mission statement is to house and walk with people. I think it’s beautiful, because let’s face it, some people walk differently. Some people walk fast, some walk slow, some people take the long way. It’s a beautiful picture of what we do.”
Resident Silvio Diaz, who spoke glowingly of Second Wind and how much it had changed his life after over a decade of homelessness in New York City, also gave those in attendance a brief tour of his cottage.
The conversation was hesitant at points, but generally cordial, and town board members seemed receptive to the message Second Wind was positing. Foster spoke about the elephant in the room, the notion of “low barrier” housing coming to Newfield, which had loomed large on the minds of some Newfield officials and was explicitly mentioned by Allinger.
Foster explained that Second Wind’s application process is low-barrier in that anyone can apply, including sex offenders, those actively dealing with addiction issues, etc. With that in mind, Foster explained the vetting process Second Wind undertakes to assess someone’s suitability to live at Second Wind.
“We’re looking to get information on whether people are experiencing issues with mental health, what’s their criminal history been, what have people experienced with addiction, where are they at and what are they willing to do with those things to move forward,” Foster said, adding that the process includes at least two interviews with housing candidates. “From that, we will narrow it down to people who match with the supports we can provide. I know there’s a lot of talk about pedophiles living here, we’ve never brought a pedophile here and we never will.”
There are times when people are rejected on the basis that their needs go beyond what Second Wind can give them, Foster said, but the general intention is to help people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences find a healthy way forward, even if it includes some bumps in the early stages.
“Expectations change and grow the longer people live here,” Shapiro said. “Folks that are coming in here often are in some stage of recovery, and that could mean they are really walking the line. For us, ‘low barrier’ means we know we need to help them. We really, really want a sober, clean environment, but some people fall off the wagon or some people come in and their sobriety is so fragile that we bring them in anyway because we have someone like Mike [Foster] who can help them.”
Second Wind’s philosophy, explained by Foster, is not to force the people who live there into sobriety, but that it is an eventual goal. For instance, he said, if someone moves in and has a drinking habit, an initial agreement would be in place that the person has to work with Second Wind staff members on gradually reducing their alcohol consumption in order to remain in the housing. If someone struggles or falls off the wagon, it wouldn’t be a reason for expulsion, but Foster said there is an expectation that someone works with the staff to take steps toward recovery, however slow that journey may be.
“I’m the boots on the ground that is going to have to deal with messes […] People who would come into additional units, there’s no concept of just ‘you’re outdoors, so you just come in,’” Foster said, speaking about the need to preserve a stable environment for people who already live at Second Wind while welcoming more residents. “There has to be levels determined of whether you’re ready to engage with the community, are you ready to move forward, do you understand that there will be disciplinary actions if you don’t or won’t.”
The crowd that Second Wind caters to at its Newfield site — men who are battling addiction, poverty and often have varying levels of criminal backgrounds — has a wealth of built-in narratives that are largely uncontrollable and difficult to fight. Some concerns are well-founded and appear well-meaning; Second Wind staffers would readily admit that their population is positioned to theoretically need more access to emergency services, though whether or not that actually plays out, in reality, is murkier, and Newfield’s only emergency response infrastructure of its own is a volunteer fire department (Bangs Ambulance and other county-wide services are certainly available, though proximity and demands elsewhere also play a role in response time).
Foster, Shapiro and Guidi said that as a general practice, they don’t call the police very often, if at all, and claimed they have only had to use Narcan (an emergency drug used to stop someone from dying from an overdose) twice since the organization’s actual housing development first started in 2013.
Eyes now turn to how the county will receive an updated or changed proposal from Second Wind, but Allinger expressed hope that a resolution could be reached in the near future and that plans could potentially move forward within the first half of the year.