This is an op-ed written by Ithaca Democratic mayoral candidate Robert Cantelmo, who is also a sitting Alderperson for the Fifth Ward on Common Council. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at email@example.com.
New York State faces a housing crisis. I was optimistic this year as Governor Hochul announced her housing compact in the state budget: a bold and multifaceted approach that would have helped build 800,000 new homes over the next ten years. While a deal remained out of reach during budget negotiations, last week the governor announced new action that promises to once again place housing at the center of policy conversations in Albany.
In this respect, Ithaca is a microcosm of New York State. Just as Governor Hochul boldly sought to tackle this problem in her proposed housing compact, Ithaca needs its leaders to take an ambitious and comprehensive approach to sustaining, enhancing, and growing our community for all Ithacans.
Housing is fundamental to the health, prosperity, and identity of a community. No Ithacans should struggle to achieve housing stability and security. As we look ahead to the next administration, it is essential that we elect leaders who can offer a comprehensive housing plan that addresses the needs of our community, promotes diversity and inclusivity, and tackles the challenges of climate change head-on. If elected, I promise to center three things in my approach to this priority issue in our community.
Legalize the Missing Middle
Ithaca has seen a steady expansion of housing in recent years, but demand is still far outpacing the available supply. To address the needs of young professionals, working families, and seniors, we need to embrace the concept of “the missing middle.” This category refers to a diverse range of housing types that includes duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and small-scale multi-unit buildings that are often prohibited or heavily regulated in our zoning codes. Such variety offers folks alternatives to single-family homes and large-scale apartments, without needing to relocate out of the city.
Fall Creek, an iconic city neighborhood that I’m proud to represent, could not be built today based on the current zoning rules. Zoning restrictions around lot size, coverage and persons per dwellings restrict our ability to innovate in the housing space. Furthermore, these constraints negatively impact the cost and feasibility of modernizing or refurbishing aging homes. Adjusting city code to legalize and promote “gentle density” offers a way to expand the number and type of housing options, while ensuring that growth is balanced, sustainable, and integrated into the existing character of our neighborhoods.
Enrich the Character of our Neighborhoods
While it is imperative that we tackle the problem of housing supply, it is equally important to enhance and enrich the unique character of our community’s storied neighborhoods. Much of New York learned this lesson the hard way during the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than demolishing and replacing older structures, our community should encourage adaptive reuse and infill development. Opting into the ETPA will facilitate this effort by stabilizing rents for residents of older large multi-family buildings while also bringing them into compliance with state oversight standards around maintenance issues, lease renewals, and capital improvements.
By repurposing underutilized buildings and lots, we can breathe new life into our neighborhoods while respecting their historical and architectural significance. To achieve this balance, we can integrate clear neighborhood-specific building and design guidelines that ensure new developments complement the existing aesthetic and contribute positively to the community’s character.
Placemaking and community-building go hand-in-hand with my plans for a housing agenda. Neighborhoods should not only have affordable and sustainable homes, but well-resourced parks for recreation and enjoyment, mixed-income tiers to promote community and diversity, and mixed-use opportunities for corner stores and common “third place” spaces to foster vibrant micro-communities. Pedestrian-friendly design, increased access to essential goods and services, and walkability also serve our city’s sustainability goals. Gentle density and mixed-use increase the demand and ridership for transit, reducing our reliance on cars and giving us new tools to help tackle some of the rising cost of TCAT maintenance and operation.
Invest in Resilience
No housing plan is complete without addressing the rising threats that climate change poses to our community. As many residents know, the updated draft FEMA flood maps pose a significant threat to our community. The need for flood insurance may financially strain homeowners across the city and threaten to displace some long-time residents. The city is currently aggressively pursuing federal and state aid to support flood mitigation efforts, including new berms and walls along existing citywide canal infrastructure. Given our new reality, our capital budget investments should reflect our commitment to investing in resilient infrastructure to ensure our city continues to thrive.
The city government should employ strategies such as floodplain management, green infrastructure, raising awareness about flood insurance, and seeking partnerships for funding and expertise. We also need to work closely with the Governor’s office and state agencies to secure funding and technical support for resilience initiatives. By leveraging these resources, we can develop comprehensive strategies to protect our community from the impacts of climate change.
These three themes are not a magic bullet to address the housing crisis in our community. City government also has a serious role to play advocating for statewide policy innovation, addressing the plight of our unhoused community, and championing property tax reform. These themes are, however, mutually reinforcing and evidence-based policies that will help promote affordability, sustainability, and strong neighborhood identity across the city. I am eager to work with the community, neighborhood associations, and my future council colleagues to achieve this vision. Together, we can raise Ithaca to even greater heights.
Robert Gesualdo Cantelmo is the Democratic Candidate for Mayor of the City of Ithaca.