Ithaca Officials Hope to Improve Housing Affordability

Key Points:

  • The city’s median household income is estimated at $30,318 per year, about half that of New York State
  • About a third of renters in the city pay over 50 percent of their income on housing costs, while 30 percent is considered the norm
  • 13,000 people, most of whom work in Ithaca, commute every day from outside Tompkins County due to a lack of affordable housing in urban areas
  • Last month, the Tompkins County Planning Department conducted a survey collecting information from people who live, work and study in Ithaca to update existing housing strategies

William Metror sets up his business, the Jack of All Trades Foundation, every morning in downtown Ithaca. Metror performs his magic for parties and events, but spends the majority of his time peddling his talents on the streets late into the night.

Since he was evicted from his home in the City of Ithaca, he has been commuting back and forth from his small, $400 per month cottage in neighboring Newfield to his place of business on the Commons.

He said there are a lot of opportunities in Ithaca. Housing, however, is not one of them.

“A lot of places out here are [renting for] 800, 700 … if you live on the Commons, places out here are 1,200 or something like that,” Metror said. “It’s way too expensive.”

According to Nels Bohn, director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, Metror joins thousands of individuals commuting to Ithaca every morning — many of whom live elsewhere in Central New York in the interest of cheaper housing.

Challenges Faced by the City

Despite a rapidly growing job market, average incomes in the city have remained low in comparison to the rest of New York State. The median household income is estimated at $30,318 per year, while 2-bedroom rental homes cost on average $1,251 per month.

Bohn said the rental market has responded to a growing student population with higher rates across the board, resulting in unaffordable housing situations for a majority of residents.

“Students bid up the price,” he said. “And that basically bids out families and people who are working from those units.”

Bohn said a very large percentage of workers in the city make less-than-sustainable incomes. Fifty-six percent of renter households are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Additionally, 35 percent pay over half of their income on housing, according to the City of Ithaca Consolidated Plan.

Results of 2006 Housing Needs Survey

The Tompkins County Planning Department distributed the first Affordable Housing Needs Assessment in 2006. In it, respondents described multiple obstacles denying them affordable housing situations within the city; several interviewees said low- to moderate-income families were forced to look for cheaper housing in rural areas within or even outside Tompkins County.

Many respondents, while searching for a home, reported experiencing discrimination based on race, English proficiency or familial status. In addition, interviewees unanimously felt the targeting of student populations by the rental market had “a negative impact on renter housing affordability in the city.”

Moving Forward with a New Assessment

The Tompkins County Planning Department released a new iteration of the 2006 survey last month. Officials hope to use the information gathered from the assessment’s results to inform an updated housing strategy and examine needs based on multiple demographic variables.

Megan McDonald, senior planner at the department, said the quantitative nature of the survey makes it the most comprehensive housing needs study carried out by the city.

“Housing has become ever more of a challenge here,” she said. “This time we’re using the survey and doing some other research and interviews to look at not just an overall number … but instead trying to get a little bit more detailed in what housing needs to look like in terms of costs and types.”

McDonald said the department is expecting survey results late March or early April. The results will help the Tompkins County Legislature update current housing strategies and to develop new ones.

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