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Special Housing Committee Begins Work

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Special Housing Committee Begins Work

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The special committee of the Tompkins County Legislature formed this year to address the critical problem of housing in our community convened for the first time today.

“Housing is a perennial problem that impacts all sectors of our community and economy, and we can’t take our feet off the gas in looking for solutions,” Legislature Chair Martha Robertson, who chairs the Housing Committee, had noted in describing the new committee as part of her 2018 annual message to the Legislature. “…Appointing this committee is an effort to give additional attention and accelerate the progress. In addition to implementation of the Housing Strategy and oversight of our ongoing housing programs, this committee will consider new initiatives, such as the possible Housing Capital Reserve Fund.” Chair Robertson told the committee today that “real people’s lives are being affected every day” by the housing problem, and that the committee’s work can lead to significant benefit for this community.

In a fast-paced and wide-ranging discussion today, the Committee set the stage for its work this year—receiving a refresher from Deputy Commissioner of Planning Megan McDonald and Commissioner Katie Borgella on the County’s Housing Strategy, adopted last June, which included updates on how elements of the strategy have begun to be pursued since then. “A lot is happening, but a lot more needs to happen,” McDonald noted. She said a preliminary Housing Opportunity Site Analysis indicates that since the beginning of 2015 more than 3,200 sites within county development focus areas identified in the Strategy have been completed, are in development, or under review (about two-thirds of them within the City of Ithaca); with about 3,400 additional sites within those focus areas, and nearly a thousand additional sites that could potentially be developed.

Among existing program tools McDonald identified to address the Housing Strategy are the Community Housing Development Fund, which supports development and rehabilitation of permanently affordable housing units in the County, the Tompkins County Homeownership Program, and the Tompkins County Home Rehabilitation Program, which assists homeowners needing home repairs for health, safety, and energy efficiency purposes.

One issue, which all agreed requires more study, is the matter of New York State County Law, and whether it would permit the County to use County funds to support affordable housing. The Legislature has passed a resolution requesting that use be added to the permitted uses specified under County Law, but discussion since then with officials from other counties indicates that may already be being done elsewhere. Among aspects to be studied further are whether County funds could be used to invest in infrastructure to support such development, or whether funds could be used to support a land bank arrangement, as is done in some other areas.

Among draft goals identified the committee are supporting implementation of the Housing Strategy (Legislator Deborah Dawson stressed that it was important to identify how the committee should support that); examining the issue of countywide enforcement of health and safety code; working with housing partners, such as municipalities, landlords, employers, and developers; and studying the impact of short-term rentals on the housing market. Another goal, which will begin to be discussed by the committee next month, is to address the proposed Housing Capital Reserve Fund. During the County’s 2018 budget process, Robertson had proposed setting aside $3 million of the County’s unassigned general fund balance to support a Housing Capital Reserve Fund, which would underwrite initiatives, as approved by the Legislature to address the housing problem, in line with goals and evaluation criteria that the Legislature would establish.

Commending the committee’s on the range of preliminary goals discussed for the year ahead, County Administrator Jason Molino cautioned that it will be important to prioritize the work and meet expectations—that, once goals and priorities are established, they should be coupled with the necessary associated objectives and timeframes for getting the work done.