ITHACA, N.Y.—In previous years, the City of Ithaca would issue a report summarizing the projects approved in the previous calendar year, what was under construction or recently built, and what was likely to come before the Planning Board in the upcoming year. Unfortunately, that report was more of a nicety than a necessity, and with recent staff shortages, it fell to the wayside.
However, this year, Planning Department Director Lisa Nicholas was able to put together a Housing Snapshot, focusing on residential developments in the city of Ithaca, for review by city electeds. Rather than trying to figure out what the different stats mean on your own, The Ithaca Voice can provide some key takeaways from the snapshot report.
1. As a proportion of housing built in the last five years, affordable housing production is actually pretty good.
Let’s lead off on a positive note. Of the housing completed within the city of Ithaca in the past five years, 54 percent is low-moderate income, generally defined as those making at or less than 80% of area median income. At a glance, that’s a really impressive figure—most communities struggle to get 10%, and 20% is considered to be doing really well.
It’s a testament to city staff and boards recognizing the value in approving low-moderate income housing, city electeds for making development possible with fair and flexible zoning, and local affordable housing developers’ ability to make their case at the city, county and state levels. Remember, conventional lenders typically won’t support low-moderate income housing with construction loans because they don’t offer enough return on investment (i.e. higher rent/sale prices). Being able to navigate and obtain funding from various sources so that construction can move forward is a valuable skill to have.
It’s worth pointing out that this is a variety of developers through a variety of approaches—Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) is probably the one that comes to mind first, and they have a handful of for-sale homes and the 79-unit Founders Way redevelopment (the former Immaculate Conception School) on the list. But Vecino Group built the 120-unit Arthaus, and market-rate developers Visum and Park Grove Realty have their own contributions – Visum built 12 “workforce housing” units at 327 West Seneca Street, and Park Grove is finishing up 42 units as the Marketview Apartments within the Cayuga Park (former Carpenter Park) mixed-income development.
2. However, overall housing production is barely keeping up with 2020s demand, let alone filling the 2010s deficit.
So, let’s throw some statistics out there. There were 254 affordable housing units completed in the city of Ithaca from 2018 through now. That’s out of 474 total. For comparison’s sake, Ithaca has about 12,500 households, and there are about 43,000 households in Tompkins County. Note that because older housing stock is sometimes taken down to make way for new units, the net gain is slightly lower, about 450 by my own math.
Now, there’s something of a special situation here in that Cornell also added 2,000 beds on its North Campus—a welcome addition, alongside the 2018 completion of a net increase of about 470 beds in the Maplewood rebuild in the town of Ithaca in 2018. But Cornell is adding hundreds of students per year, and outside of student housing, Tompkins County still needs about 580 housing units per year to fill the housing deficit and keep up with current growth in demand, of which the city of Ithaca was expected to provide a large portion. As a result, vacancy rates are slightly better than their unhealthy lows in the mid-2010s, but still uncomfortably low. The rise of short-term rentals, through companies like Airbnb and Vrbo, certainly hasn’t helped.
3. For-sale housing is still lacking — at all price points.
This is going to be something of a sore spot, as many readers have pointed this out over the years. The vast majority of the housing built in the past five years is rentals, market-rate and low-moderate income. Of those 474 units completed from 2018 to 2023, only 12 were low-moderate income for-sale units, all by INHS, and two of the 474 were market-rate for-sale units, which combine for less than 3% of the total.
Now, unfortunately, this is a question that the city and county are aware of and still struggle with how to address. The simple answer is, most for-sale housing is single-family homes, and there isn’t much room for those in Ithaca. It’s easier to get funding to do a rental, and that’s especially true if you’re doing an affordable housing development.
The hard fact is, security deposits require less up-front than a mortgage down payment does. This disincentivizes funding for affordable housing at the state level because the state is looking to be efficient with its cash, and while the typical grant is $7,500 per low-moderate income rental unit (smaller projects and lower incomes typically need more, larger/middle-income projects less), it’s $35,000-40,000 per unit of affordable for-sale housing. Given that there are hundreds of thousands of households in need in New York State, the state prioritizes rentals in its grant allocations; cynicism aside, the grant reviewers are trying to do the greatest good with limited resources.
As for the market-rate for-sale options aside from houses, new condos are notoriously difficult to do outside of truly high-end and in-demand markets like the New York metro and a few wealthy upstate cities like Saratoga Springs. This is due to a lengthy and expensive regulatory process, the need to pre-sell units prior to construction, and a general reluctance when builders know for-rent is a much safer investment in Ithaca, where over 70% of the population rents.
4. Housing under construction and approved for construction picks up the pace, but has a smaller proportion of affordable housing.
According to the city’s estimate, there are 1,011 housing units under construction at this time, to be delivered onto the market within the next two years. The largest of these are Catherine Commons in Collegetown (360 units), The Ithacan (200 units) and Asteri Ithaca (181 units), the last two of which comprise the housing portions of the Green Street Garage Rebuild.
One wouldn’t want to question the work staff put into this, which is greatly appreciated, but the numbers seem to be off in a few cases, unless they know something I don’t. Library Place is slated for 66 units (the document says 54) and “The Dean” at Gateway Center for 46 apartments (the document says 36 units). The Northside rebuild is a net gain of 12 low-moderate income units, though it is 82 new units overall.
All of the low-moderate income housing units reported are in three projects— Asteri, the Northside Rebuild, and the 20 units in the Ithacan as part of inclusionary zoning. That’s 213 units out of 1,000+ underway, hardly 20%. So while there are overall housing gains, the affordable proportion is down. The silver lining is that it’s not far off from the previous five years, at least in terms of net gain, and these are expected to be delivered within the next two years.
As for housing approved, the city estimates that at 1,140 units (and mine differs slightly for the same project group, but again, I’m not here to quibble), with two projects that are low-moderate income—Visum’s 57-unit 510 West State/Martin Luther King. Jr. Street project, and Visum’s “The Citizen” at 602 West Buffalo, which would provide 80 moderate-income units. Most of the rest are student rentals in or near Collegetown, with a few other rental projects in the West End and along the waterfront. Not a single unit is for-sale.
5. The city expects the waterfront and South Hill to be development hotspots in 2023.
In the report, Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted five projects on the city’s radar for construction starts within the next 2-3 years. Two are low-moderate income, and have been discussed here at the Voice: four for-sale homes on Sears Street as part of the new county office building plan, and 55 apartments in “The Beacon” on Inlet Island, both by INHS.
As for the other three, one is Visum’s “Neighborhood of the Arts,” which Visum CEO Todd Fox has described as having an uncertain future in recent months. Nicholas estimates 200-400 housing units on the former Weitsman steel yard. A second is the Southworks/Chainworks site on South Hill, where planning for phase two is expected to result in 300-500 housing units over several years in a combination of renovated and new structures on the 95-acre factory site.
The fifth one is probably the one most unfamiliar to readers—Arnot Realty’s plans for the former NYS DOT site. Horseheads-based Arnot won the auction for the 8.16-acre DOT property in an auction back in September 2020, with a $3.79 million bid for the property after the new regional facility was built in Lansing. Studies conducted on behalf of the county suggest an ambitious developer could pursue a valuable project on the site, thanks to favorable zoning and a desirable location.
According to Nicholas’ estimate, the development would potentially include up to 400 housing units. However, the mix of units, including affordable portions or for-sale segments, is unknown, as well as the site layout and building plans themselves. Arnot is slated to present concept plans to the city Planning Board later this month, and hopefully that will offer us a first glimpse of their plans.