February 29, 2004

Affordable housing in Dryden

Rising assessments, roads filled with 14,000 out-of-county commuters, and questions about how best to develop the town all connect to a common problem: Tompkins County's lack of housing, especially affordable housing.

A guest column in the Ithaca Journal (about affordable housing in the Town of Ithaca) makes clear where the gap is:

The data makes it clear what the fundamental problem is. There is a shortage of apartments (around 3,100 units) at rents of $250 or below and a large shortage (around 2,500 units) at rents of $900 and above.
On the other hand, there is an excess of housing (around 5,600 units) at rent levels clustered around the median rent of $611. The result is that the very lowest income households and the highest income households put pressure on the rental market at the median, thus driving up rents in that range.

(John Bowers was citing a report from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.)

The Town of Dryden's 2002 median values for houses were in line with the county's, though that doesn't say much about distribution. (The Villages of Dryden and Freeville had lower medians.) 2000 census data, which seems likely to be out of date given the degree of change in recent years, does provide something of a picture of owner-occupied houses for the Town of Dryden, Village of Dryden, and Village of Freeville. All seem to cluster pretty tightly around the median price.

Many of Dryden's houses are older, as looking at the census housing data for the Town of Dryden, Village of Dryden, and Village of Freeville shows. About 21% of the town's housing stock (including my own house) is buildings built before 1939. In the Village of Dryden, 34% of housing is from 1939 or earlier (including 43% of rental housing), while in Freeville just over 50% of housing is from 1939 or earlier (though only 45% of rentals).

The census also provides information on rents for the Town of Dryden, Village of Dryden, and Village of Freeville. Median gross rent (including utilities, if applicable) was $544 in the Town of Dryden, $468 in the Village of Dryden, and $547 in the Village of Freeville. Rents in all of these places are fairly well clustered around the medians.

For owner-occupied buildings, there's a (not surprising) difference between those paying a mortgage and those who aren't. Again, the census bureau has tables for the Town of Dryden, Village of Dryden, and Village of Freeville. With a mortgage, median monthly owner costs are $1,091 for the Town of Dryden, $1,003 for the Village of Dryden, and $925 for the Village of Freeville. Without a mortgage, it's $435 for the Town of Dryden, $451 for the Village of Dryden, and $335 in Freeville. Except in Freeville, those cluster fairly tightly around the median.

(The maps I used to calculate populations for Varna and Etna don't contain housing cost data, though I may be able to calculate it through other methods.)

The Draft Comprehensive Plan for the town is clearly excited about increasing density by building new housing in the town, and there's a goal (on page 33) of "Provide for a variety of affordable, high-quality housing options for all town residents." At the same time, though, there's not much detail on how to achieve that affordability, especially in a community with a large population of relatively wealthy but clearly transient renters. Page 55 of the plan includes a sidebar on "Some Guidelines for Multi-Family Development", but there's little guidance there on encouraging projects that have low rents or low costs of ownership.

It may not be the role of the plan to do this - it may be something that comes in zoning and implementation - but it seems like housing costs are part of the economic foundation on which such a plan rests, and critical to its success. If, for instance, Varna develops densely, but brings more students off the campus and out of the City of Ithaca, then housing isn't likely to be affordable there, and lots of people will still be commuting down 366 to get to their work at Cornell, further increasing the pressure the road puts on the community. I can't find data on who occupies rentals in the Varna area now, but new construction doesn't look targeted to low-income renters.

(The town has already banned new development with mobile homes, thereby eliminating a common approach to low-income housing that doesn't require much government intervention.)

There does seem to be some concern over what affordable housing might bring to the area, and low-income housing in particular has certainly provoked rows in Tompkins County in the past. At the same time, this is a circle that needs to be squared. It hardly seems like that Dryden (or even Varna) will turn into Cayuga Heights overnight, but the prospect of "luxury" apartment complexes and town houses seems to produce decidedly mixed results.

Posted by simon at February 29, 2004 10:19 AM in
Note on photos