City experiencing dearth of affordable units
The rent is too damn high!” This is not just the rallying cry of one-time presidential candidate and facial hair aficionado Jimmy McMillan, but a phrase many Ithaca residents find themselves uttering quite often. And rightly so, as a report by The New York Times, published in April 2014, lists Ithaca as one of the most expensive U.S. cities to live in, ranking it eleventh in a list of 20 cities where rents are highest relative to median gross income. This report shows that Ithacans are spending an average of 38.6 percent of their income on rent alone. The city highest on that list, Los Angeles, has residents coughing up 47 percent of their income on rent.
Sperling’s Best Places, a website that aggregates demographic and real estate statistics from government sources, lists the average rent for a one-bedroom home or apartment in Ithaca at $924.
A report released by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency in May found that the average Ithacan would have to work 74 hours per week at minimum wage to afford even a studio apartment. But for those who want to work a reasonable number of hours, the Urban Renewal Agency reports residents would have to make $14.79 per hour to afford a studio apartment in Ithaca.
Lynn Truame, the community development planner of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, said a major contribution to the hostile housing market is good ol’ supply and demand.
“A lot of people want to live here and there are a limited number of housing units,” Truame said in an email interview. “We have an extremely low vacancy rate, less than one percent for rental units. When there’s a lot of competition for any available unit, landlords can charge top dollar and be pretty sure they will find someone who is willing and able to pay it.”
Compare this to Elmira, another college city about 30 miles south of Ithaca. In terms of size and income, they’re both quite similar. But Elmira’s rental vacancy rate was 4.61 percent in 2013, according to the Department of Numbers — a group that analyzes and contextualizes data. This factors into how the average rent for a whole unit in Elmira is equal to one person’s share of monthly rental costs in Ithaca and why that three-bedroom apartment on Coddington Road may cost each person $675 per month, but its twin in Elmira could cost only $675 in total. While there are other factors that contribute to this price difference, the difference in expense between the two cities is alarming.
Oftentimes, it is students who are willing to pay top dollar for these housing units, as evidenced by the $1,000 studio apartments smattered across Ithaca’s Craigslist page. As a result, many low-income, permanent residents of Ithaca are feeling the pinch. And while the ads for these properties aren’t explicitly student-centered, their language makes it clear who the target audience is. Ads for student-centered properties talk about leases that start around the beginning of semesters and have close proximity to campuses. A non-student likely won’t be concerned about these things unless they work for one of the schools. Such targeting is all completely legal as well, Truame said.
“The city has an extremely limited role in guiding development,” she said. “We don’t in any way control or even influence who a developer targets as their clientele. As long as a project is permitted under the zoning and building codes, it can be built.”
Determining how much to charge for the rent on these complexes varies from company to company. Multiple attempts to reach Novarr-Mackesey, the local property developer giant that recently finished constructing the Collegetown Terrace complex at the corner of Routes 79 and 366 downtown, proved unsuccessful. A secretary said that though owner John Novarr was “flattered” that his perspective was wanted for this article, he was too busy to answer questions.
During a brief and hurried phone call, Steve Beer, owner of Beer Properties, said while there is no “golden rule” for determining rent prices, they are typically based on location and the previous year’s rent.
These inflated costs of living aren’t unique to all college towns either. Adams State University is a small public school in Colorado serving about 3,700 undergrads. ASU is located in the town of Alamosa, home to 8,800 desert dwellers. Similar to Ithaca, about one-third of Alamosa’s residents live in poverty, according to the 2010 Census.
But what separates these two college towns is how these numbers are dealt with. Mark Pittman, assistant director of housing at ASU, emphasized the importance of providing affordable housing.
“Adams State University has a very affordable family housing option — $515 per month for 2-bedroom with all utilities, trash, basic cable, phone and internet included — that serves low-income families very well while they are pursuing a college degree, hoping to break the cycle of poverty,” Pittman said in an email.
Back in Ithaca, it’s uncertain if there is light at the end of the housing crisis tunnel. Plans for expanding public housing and dispensing loans to low-income families are in the works, according to the Urban Renewal Agency and Neighborhood Housing Services. Or, as Pittman suggested, perhaps the best way to attack the affordable housing crisis is giving people the resources to afford to attend the schools on the hill and rent those new developments.
Miranda Materazzo is a senior journalism major whose life dream is to be a hair aficionado. You can email her firstname.lastname@example.org.