Last week, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick and county Legislator Martha Robertson issued an opinion piece on the need for more housing, and especially affordable housing, in the city and county. There were two, fairly simple reactions to the article – readers believed it and agreed there was a housing issue, or they thought it was bunch of lies.
Being a data-driven person, I decided to delve a little deeper into the numbers behind Myrick and Robertson’s claims.
Let’s start with the 2006 housing study that was cited in the article. According to that study, performed by Vermont-based Economic & Policy Resources Inc. (EPR), 2,127 rental units and 1,767 owner-occupied units would be needed by the end of 2014, for a total of 3,894. These numbers were determined using the 2005 housing deficit (871 units), economic trends and population/demographic trends. Some readers may remember the quote of “4,000 units of housing” cited in news pieces back in the mid-2000s, and this is where it comes from.
Using data from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s State Of the Cities Systems (SOCDS) Database, new housing permits were pulled for the same time period as the study’s projection, 2006 to 2014. From 2006 to 2014, Tompkins County added 1,124 single-family homes and 910 multi-family housing units (apartments and maybe a few co-ops or condos), for a total of 2,034 housing units. In what is a surprise to no one, the majority of multi-family housing was built in the city of Ithaca, and the majority of single-family homes were built in surrounding towns. The county had 40,069 housing units in 2006, so in that nine-year span there was about 5.1% growth in housing units, to 42,103.
The EPR study stated that 3,894 housing units would be required. With 2,034 units actually built, that means only 52% of the housing needs identified by the study were met. Breaking it down further, homeowners, occupying mostly single-family properties, fared a little better – with 1,124 built of the 1,767, that meant 63.6% of the homes that were needed based on 2006-2014 projection were built. However, for rental units, which are mostly multi-family housing, it was only 910 of the 2,127 needed – 42.8%. Not even half.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the economy slowed down or population growth level off, but neither of those occurred. Even with the recession a few years ago, job totals have increased quite a bit, with over 6,000 jobs have been added to the county since 2006. The population has also increased – Tompkins County had 99,997 residents in 2006, and in 2014 it was estimated to be 104,691. Rather oddly, the county added 3,049 housing units from 1997-2005, the previous nine-year period, but only 3,482 residents. Population growth has climbed even as housing construction has dropped.
Perhaps most importantly, the 2006 EPR study never accounted for changes in student population. It assumed net zero change for the purpose of the study, which focused on permanent residents. Unfortunately for the housing situation, there’s been a huge growth in student population. Cornell added 2,040 students from 2006 to 2014. Ithaca College added a more manageable 178 students. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average rental unit in Tompkins County houses 2.14 people. The county’s staring down 1,036 units it didn’t plan for, and as noted in the opinion article, Cornell plans on increasing its enrollment further.
For the record, IC has added student housing in the period from 2006 to 2014 – an addition to the Circle Apartments south of campus, which opened in 2012 and increased campus housing capacity by 138 beds. While South Hill students are driving up housing demand, the overall impact is minor.
In contrast, when Cornell rebuilt its West Campus Housing during the 2006-2014 time period, there was no net increase in the total number of beds. The Big Red has had no gain in student housing since new dorms opened on North Campus in 2001. With the impending closure of the 480-bed Maplewood Park student housing complex, the situation may get worse. No one can force Cornell to build new housing, but their burgeoning student population does add a substantial strain to the market.
Given the numbers above, Tompkins County fell 1,860 units short of its 2014 housing goal; add in the unexpected influx of college students, and the number rises to 2,832. It wasn’t good to have some affordability problems when the county was 871 units short of a balanced market in 2005; at the 2014 deficit of 2,832 units, the impacts become much more severe, which is why housing affordability has become such a big issue.
Myrick and Robertson’s column might be an opinion, but the statistics give their opinion a lot of weight.