2016 Earth Day teach-in on housingSustainable Tompkins hosted a community conversation on the housing system in Tompkins County at their April 23, 2016 Earth Day event held at The Space@GreenStar. About 60 people attended including elected representatives from Ithaca City Council, Ithaca Town Board, Tompkins County Legislature, and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. Several people from planning departments and the building sector also participated.

We focused on this topic because of the increasing strain the housing shortage is putting on individual households and community relations. There was a lot of friction in 2015 over specific development projects, and many are uncertain that we are solving the housing shortage in a way that matches our values and goals as expressed in our local comprehensive plans. There is a lack of recent data to document the scale of the problem, but it is clear from anecdotal evidence that demand is greatly exceeding supply at all income levels, and that the downward pressure on the system invariably has had much harsher impacts on lower-income residents.

Our objective was to create a space for critical thinking about how our current housing system works and how it might be redesigned. Community members were invited to share their perspectives and experiences with a goal of reaching a deeper shared understanding of the trends and critical factors driving our housing system. We also wanted to explore some of the tools available to drive outcomes in the direction of our goals for the City, Town, and County comprehensive plans.

As a prelude to that conversation, we organized a weekly series of opinion articles in the Ithaca Times. Over a 6-week period, elected officials, developers, and community leaders explored what’s driving our current development patterns, and what options we have for accommodating new residents without decreasing quality of life or increasing gentrification:

The teach-in began with opening remarks by Gerald Torres of the Earth Day Network on the challenges of balancing housing demand and supply in an equitable manner with examples from Austin, Texas which underwent rapid growth during his tenure at their university. Next, Gay Nicholson provided an overview of the housing system and how taking time to map out the system might help us develop a shared understanding of the complex relationships among its elements:
• number of in-migrants and out-migrants (students, retirees, entrepreneurs, workers, etc.),
• stocks of housing (owned or rented; low, medium, and high priced, urban or rural),
• sources of capital (bank loans, investors, grants, government funding, Cornell PILOT), and
• drivers affecting housing demand and supply (e.g. Cornell’s expansion, baby boomer retirement, Ithaca’s reputation, sector growth in high tech, health, and tourism, wage distribution, rental costs, property taxes, site availability and acquisition, permitting process)

Gay also provided an example of thinking across systems to look for solutions: Ithaca’s housing system is part of the larger Finger Lakes regional economy and geography. Perhaps we could decrease the pressure on housing demand in Ithaca if we collaborated with other cities and villages to persuade newcomers (especially retirees and entrepreneurs) to consider repopulating our beautiful Finger Lakes region with all its existing infrastructure and amenities.

Next, County Legislator Martha Robertson reviewed what the County Legislature and Community Housing Fund has been doing to address the housing shortage. Economic development depends upon an adequate housing supply, but the County also wants to assure equitable access to that supply. The county’s first-time homebuyers program offers up to $30,000 interest free to lower-income buyers. So far 373 households have been helped, averaging 17 per year. Unfortunately, the cost of housing in the City and Town of Ithaca has risen so much that lower-income buyers are priced out of those areas because this program is capped at a $165,000 purchase price. Meanwhile the Community Housing Development Fund which is supported by Cornell, City of Ithaca, and Tompkins County has granted $2 million in subsidies for the development of 197 units of affordable housing (about 39 per year). These programs are very helpful but not nearly enough to cope with the growing demand for housing as Cornell expands and people migrate to Ithaca.

The County is now awaiting the report on the 2016 Housing Needs Assessment – the first in ten years. The report will project housing needs over the next 10 years and attempt to factor in Baby Boomer retirement (i.e. 60% of Cornell staff and faculty will be retiring in the next 10 years and are unlikely to leave the area – which means housing for their replacements will be needed). The County is also working on a Housing Strategy because we need to be more proactive in directing development to locations where overall energy requirements can be reduced. The drive for greater density in certain areas is important for reducing transportation-linked carbon emissions to reach our climate protection goals.

Paul Mazzarella of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services spoke next about some of the other elements in our housing system. Local government is critical to outcomes, and zoning and other measures are needed to guide results. Right now this is not coordinated across municipal boundaries and we need a more unified approach. All of the individualized decision-making in the housing market is not bringing us the collective results we need. Paul emphasized that the most invisible elements of our housing system are the poor or special needs residents. They tend not to participate in meetings and we don’t hear their voices. Often, they are living in drafty old housing with potential health hazards while being charged 50-60% of their income for shelter – leaving nothing for emergencies or saving for retirement.

Kirby Edmonds served as chair of the City of Ithaca comprehensive plan and reviewed its goals for neighborhoods and affordability. These goals came out of extended conversations with many residents. They will be difficult goals to achieve, but they reflect the values and needs of a large portion of the community. In the last 15 years, median home prices rose 91% and median rent increased 79%. For almost everyone, wages and income barely changed and well over half of Ithaca residents spend more than the recommended 30% of their income on housing. Solving this is going to be very challenging and probably take 20 years, but there is already urgency over where people are going to sleep tonight.

Seph Murtagh is the chair of the City Planning and Economic Development Committee and welcomed the opportunity for a community conversation to help overcome the current situation of having various members of the community pitted against each other (rich vs. poor, young vs. old, students vs. locals, developers vs. neighborhoods). Ithaca’s popularity problem has put tremendous downward pressure on lower-income people, but most of the housing projects coming through have faced significant local pushback on issues of noise, parking, and the massing of buildings affecting established neighborhood character. He believes people have a right to voice opinions about development in their own neighborhoods, but that we need a better process to manage public feedback to get a better end result.

The City’s new comp plan is a first step, a blueprint developed by the community. The city changed the zoning years ago to push for density in Collegetown and downtown to spare the residential neighborhoods, but now the rate of growth means more parts of the City are affected. Developing design standards would be a good way of reducing expense and time delays for developers by providing them with what the community wants in advance. The City is also investigating both incentive and inclusionary zoning as a means of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but it may take some time to work through what will withstand legal challenges yet make a difference in the supply of affordable units.

Meanwhile, the scarcity of houses for purchase in the City is a real problem for families that want to commit to making their homes in walkable neighborhoods. One option is to find ways to convert more rental housing back into owner-occupied homes. Another crushing problem is property taxes. The tax rates in Ithaca are twice those in other areas because more than 60% of the land is off the tax rolls (primarily Cornell). In addition, unfunded mandates and stagnant amounts of state aid mean there is no relief for taxpayers in sight. Seph called for ongoing roundtable discussions with developers, local government, and citizen groups to press forward with exploring options and finding solutions.

Sasha Paris and Ana Ortiz shared their struggles to find affordable housing in the City that could meet their needs and budgets. Sasha is legally blind, can’t drive, and lives on a very modest income. Just 5 years ago she was able to rent a room in a Fall Creek home for $450/mo, but now is hard pressed to find anything similar for less than $700. Ana recently faced eviction when her building was purchased for commercial redevelopment. She was unable to find affordable housing for her and her 4 children inside the City and had to relocate to Caroline. This is an extreme hardship for a household without a car and several children with significant medical care needs. Their testimony made clear the need for a much greater community intervention and policy response.

Participants were then invited to informally merge into three breakout groups to share their perspectives and utilize the easel sheets, markers, and post-it notes to capture their conversations about their experiences and ideas for how to address the imbalance in housing demand and supply. After 30 minutes, reps from each of the 3 groups gave brief summaries of the topics explored and suggestions for action:

• People need to understand that the future won’t look like the present, and human civilization is at stake. Therefore, we must solve problems like housing supply with deep consideration of climate change and the imperative to stop using fossil fuels. Our development permitting process should reflect this imperative.
• Trickle-down housing supply is not working. The poorest are the ones who get squeezed out by those who are willing to pay more, even for shoddy housing.
• Raising the county minimum wage to a living wage would allow many more people to afford living here.
• The local media tends to focus on covering the fights over development projects instead of working on issue resolution.

• The increase in property taxes and escalating assessments is primarily caused by Cornell’s growth and their tax-exempt status.
• Cornell is seen as having a large negative impact on housing equity because of its sustained expansion (about 200 more students each year) and need for off-campus housing – while also depriving the community of property taxes. Many felt that the campuses should not receive any tax incentives for their building projects and instead should be paying a much higher PILOT to the host community.
• Charge Cornell an impact fee for adding students without providing them housing.
• Change the state law so that Cornell can be forced to pay more property taxes, and at least be forced to pay property taxes on graduate student housing since these families require a large amount of services from local school districts and municipalities.

• Rent control is not really an option since the state legislature would have to approve it and the trend in recent years is to dismantle NYC’s rent control program.
• Mandate inclusionary zoning rather than having to use incentive zoning to get developers to shoulder some of the burden of solving the affordability issue.
• Organize political action to pressure the federal government to spend more on subsidizing affordable housing construction.

• Create a more predictable site plan review process to lower costs to developers and incentivize more affordable housing projects.
• Some representatives from the building sector recommended that the City hasten its approval processes so that supply could catch up with demand.
• Require developers to own buildings for a certain number of years in order to qualify for any incentives.
• Meet our climate action goals by requiring new large projects to meet much higher standards of efficiency with lower carbon footprints.

• Take advantage of the large number of parking lots and single-story structures in the West End and Inlet area to build multi-use commercial and apartments/condos.
• Focus teardown redevelopment where the housing stock is in poor condition, and build back with much greater density.
• Improve public transit and focus on transit-oriented development inside the City and Town of Ithaca.
• Bring both local bankers and developers to the table to figure out how to build more mid-market units.
• Explore cooperative models like EcoVillage.
• Develop cooperatively owned local utilities.

• Citizens are going to need to pressure public officials to get what we need. We also need greater diversity on our planning boards and town boards – paying people appropriately for their service might allow many more people to participate in making local policy decisions.
• We need somebody to lead on community education on housing so that neighborhood residents support affordable housing projects.

We knew from the start that our short time together for the teach-in would not be sufficient to do more than initiate a broader conversation in our community about how to address the imbalance in our housing supply. The new Housing Needs Assessment is to be released in June and the County plans to host at least one public meeting to discuss the results. If funding sources could be identified, Sustainable Tompkins and other groups could put together additional working groups and collaborative efforts to systematically explore ways to prevent the kind of displacement, lost identity, and overburdened infrastructure that so often accompanies accelerated growth.

Progressives are often criticized for not being pragmatic about finding solutions to the problems they protest. But elites are criticized for often solving problems to their benefit and overlooking the interests of everyone affected. From the beginning, our objective for this housing conversation was to create a space for mutual learning and respect for the concerns of all parties – even if over time each of us has to accept adjustments to our perspectives as we gain a better understanding of how to meet our housing needs in a way that is fair, inclusive, and sustainable.

Appendices (materials from teach-in)

Tools for Affordable Housing

1. Raise the minimum wage.
2. Community land trusts to stabilize house resale prices
3. Property tax subsidies for low-income owners
4. Stabilization vouchers for low-income tenants or properties
5. Rent control
6. Incentive zoning to add more affordable units
7. Inclusionary zoning to mandate more affordable units

Variables Affecting Housing Development

1. Zoning and local regulations
2. Site availability and acquisition
3. Financing
4. Construction costs
5. Infrastructure
6. Site plan review and approval
7. Resistance to projects/NIMBY
8. Design standards for expedited approval
9. Incentive zoning
10. Property taxes

Traditional bank loan rates are still low. It is the hedge fund money portion of a big project that might demand 15% return. Community/municipal bonds are possible, but have their own expenses to create and manage.

If we add pedestrian infrastructure to waterfront and Southwest Park, we can add lots of walkable neighborhood.

NIMBY is sometimes the inability to visualize change and what things will be like.

Variables Affecting In-migration
1. Campus expansion and cost of tuition
2. Boomer retirement
3. Tech cluster development
4. Business sector growth (e.g. health care, tourism)
5. Quality of life reputation
6. Availability and price of housing

Variables Affecting Out-Migration
1. Graduation
2. Business relocation
3. Property taxes
4. Rent increases
5. Retirement
6. Downsizing/job loss
7. Availability of preferred housing type
8. Low wages


Tools for Affordable Housing

  1. Community land trusts and deed restrictions to stabilize house resale prices

This tool involves non-profit organizations holding land in trust with restrictions on resale price of houses on that land. Income restrictions apply to who can qualify to buy a house. Because the price the house can be sold for is limited according to a formula, the house remains affordable to low to moderate income households and public money invested in affordable housing is protected. INHS is the organization in Ithaca that uses this approach.

Currently, these limited-resale-value houses are assessed at their theoretical market value, not their actual allowable re-sale value, so taxes are much higher than what can be afforded by low- to moderate-income owners. To change this situation requires a change in state law. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, at the request of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County, currently has a bill before the legislature which would grant Tompkins County the power to change these assessments.

Habitat for Humanity is building two units in Ithaca on Morris Ave. which will have deed restrictions that will limit the resale value of the homes. It is unclear whether they will be able to take advantage of the proposed new legislation to bring taxes in line with allowable resale prices since Habitat’s model does not involve a community land trust.

  1. Property tax subsidies for low-income owners

New York State Star and Enhanced Star program for school taxes are property tax subsidies for “lower” income and senior lower income tax payers. Star program provides reduction of $30,000 of full value of assessment of owner-occupied homes for those with incomes below $500,000. Enhanced Star provides reduction of $65,300 for the primary residence of senior citizens (age 65 and older) with qualifying incomes ($84,550 or less). With the increase in home values/assessments, these reductions reduce taxes on a smaller percentage of house values.

In some states, high property taxes on low income families, resulting from a sudden increase in property values, have been relieved by allowing for deferral of some portion of property taxes until sale of property. Maryland has a law of this type. This is not an option under NYS law.

  1. Rental assistance vouchers for low-income tenants or properties

The Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly called Section 8) is a federal rent subsidy available to low-income households. There are two agencies in Tompkins County that issue vouchers: Tompkins Community Action and the Ithaca Housing Authority. Both agencies have a lengthy waiting list for vouchers – around 2-3 years. There is a limit (called the payment standard) on how much the agency can pay toward the rent. The payment standard is based on average rents in the area; unfortunately Ithaca is averaged in with surrounding communities throughout the county with much lower rents. There are fewer and fewer apartments in the city where a voucher is sufficient to cover the rent. In addition, several landlords don’t accept vouchers at all. In addition, the physical condition of the units where vouchers are accepted is sometimes sub-standard (though they are inspected to ensure they meet minimum housing quality standards before a voucher can be used there). It is not currently illegal to discriminate in Ithaca on the basis of source of income e.g., housing vouchers, but the Office of Human Rights is hoping to change that. However, even if that protection is added to the law, landlords could avoid taking vouchers by simply raising their rent beyond what is affordable based on the payment standard.

  1. Rent control and rent stabilization

 Rent control and rent stabilization are highly unlikely to be expanded beyond the areas where they currently exist.

The laws in New York are highly complex and apply to NYC and Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties only. They apply to buildings of a particular size or vintage. The pressure is to decrease rather than increase rent control. 

  1. Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning is a flexible tool for creating new affordable rental and ownership opportunities in connection with market-rate housing development. Inclusionary housing policies may be mandatory or voluntary, and either require the inclusion of a modest percentage of moderately priced units in the larger market-rate housing development, or offer incentives designed to induce developers to include such units voluntarily. Voluntary inclusionary zoning is a form of incentive zoning (see below). Some communities have ordinances that require below-market units to be built at the same time, in the same location, and with an appearance similar or identical to the adjacent market-rate units [1], helping to create diverse, mixed income neighborhoods and disperse affordable homes throughout the community.”


Some inclusionary ordinances include a provision allowing a developer to pay a fee to the municipality and avoid having to develop the affordable units. This fee is deposited into an affordable housing fund and used to support the development of additional affordable units, outside the inclusionary framework (eg., as the local portion of funding for a project that is using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program).

Inclusionary zoning has been under discussion in Ithaca. Opinions differ about whether to proceed in this way.

  • A California case on mandatory inclusionary zoning has been appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of such ordinances as takings without just compensation – a violation of the fifth amendment. It’s unclear when the case will be taken up, and until the vacant seat on the court is filled it’s very unclear what the outcome of that appeal might be. Mandatory ordinances have produced the vast majority of affordable units (voluntary ordinances are quite ineffective), so if mandatory inclusionary zoning is struck down, this would not be a useful avenue for producing affordable units anymore.
  • Even where mandatory ordinances exist, the number of units produced is relatively small.
  • There is some concern that mandatory ordinances will dampen market-rate housing development.
  1. Incentive zoning

Incentive zoning can be used to induce the development of a variety community benefits e.g., parks, day care, affordable housing, etc. Unfortunately, Ithaca has very few incentives to offer because what would usually be used as incentives are already allowed – we just recently up-zoned (i.e., raised the height limit for buildings) in our hottest development areas (Collegetown and Central Business District (CBD)); additional density is opposed by a large and vocal swath of the citizenry. Examples of uses of incentive zoning are given at the following website:


Seattle uses increased floor area as an incentive if a developer will include low to moderate income units. By raising the height limit on buildings, Ithaca has already granted this incentive. Baltimore’s incentive program hasn’t resulting in units being undertaken.

  1. Accessory Dwelling Units

“An accessory dwelling unit is a really simple and old idea: having a second small dwelling right on the same grounds (or attached to) your regular single-family house, such as:

  • an apartment over the garage
  • a tiny house (on a foundation) in the backyard
  • a basement apartment”

Following link has lengthy discussion with references to communities having used ADUs and their success in creating affordable housing. In some cases, 15-20% of units are “low income” though not available to the general public because they are rented for little or no rent to family or friends.


This approach is market based and doesn’t require subsidies. In Ithaca these accessory dwelling units are allowed by special use permit, which has to be renewed every three years. (See Sec. 325.10 of the City of Ithaca Municipal Code.) Additionally, a zoning variance may be required in some cases depending on what is proposed.

Nancy Riffer

With assistance from Lynn Truame,

Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency

June 16, 2016