Downtown Ithaca has long had a reputation for being an expensive place to live. A 2012 study by the Danter Company concluded that downtown Ithaca has “extremely high rents” and the New York Times recently published a list of American cities where rents are highest relative to median income, on which Ithaca was ranked number 11 – just one spot below New York City. In response to these revelations, a local official was quoted by the Ithaca Times as saying, “We have a growing housing affordability problem in Ithaca.”
But does high cost of housing necessarily mean high cost of living? Says Jennifer Dotson, Executive Director of Ithaca Carshare and a board member of Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), “Although housing prices in outlying towns and villages are much lower than in Ithaca, once you add in the cost of driving to and from work, your cost of living is almost always higher, just spread among more bills each month.”
Researchers at the Center for Neighborhood Technology would certainly concur. Recognizing that transportation costs are typically a household’s second largest expenditure and that they vary widely between neighborhoods, the Center’s Housing and Transportation (H + T) index offers a more comprehensive view of affordability. The H + T sets the benchmark at no more than 45 percent of household income, which is based on the traditional wisdom that housing costs should not exceed 30 percent and the Center’s findings that 15 percent is an attainable nationwide goal for transportation affordability.
By this enhanced metric, downtown Ithaca and some adjacent neighborhoods to the southwest turn out to be some of the most affordable places to live in the area and indeed the entire state. Looking at a broad swath of Upstate New York that includes Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, the proportion of households that meet the H + T definition of affordability is about 35 percent, but that figure drops precipitously to less than six percent when you zoom into a 50-mile radius surrounding Ithaca. Zooming further and further into the heart of the city, however, yields a surprising result: at a one-mile radius around the Ithaca Commons, over half of households qualify.
How can this be so? We can look at proportional housing and transportation costs by comparing two hypothetical area residents. Let’s presume these illustrative locals are both single, live in one-bedroom apartments, and work in middle management at Wegmans making $3,300 per month. One lives in the Village of Groton and one lives just off the Commons. The village dweller pays $600 a month for rent and utilities (an average amount according to Rentometer) and the downtown denizen pays $950.00. But even with the same monthly car payments, commuting from Groton daily for work and errands will cost nearly $1,200 (according to Commute Solutions) while commuting from downtown will cost just $500, including a monthly parking pass in Green Garage. Even with a substantially higher rent bill, the downtown resident will expend on 44 percent housing and transportation costs – an affordable proportion – while the Groton resident will expend 55 percent.
Again, the above scenario assumes that both individuals own cars and use them to get to work every day. But as a walkable and bikeable urban neighborhood that serves as the region’s primary public transit hub, downtown Ithaca offers its residents many cheaper transportation alternatives. If the downtown resident were to forego a personal car and instead sign up for a personalized combination of services including Carshare, TCAT, Recycle Ithaca’s Bicycles (RIBS), the Zimride Tompkins rideshare network, and the Ithaca Dispatch taxi service – all of which are readily accessible from the center of downtown – their monthly transportation costs could drop below $200 and their H + T proportion could drop below 35 percent. The Groton resident, unable to alter their commuting habits, would have to receive a whopping $1,900 per month pay raise to reach that level of affordability.
Adds Dotson, “What if your income suddenly drops and you can’t afford to drive into town every day? You’re immediately stranded and can’t even afford to get to ‘free’ services. And what if you work at a restaurant or store, where your shifts are very early or very late? Your paycheck probably isn’t enough for gas and car payments, so getting to work and back is a long walk if you live two or three miles out. If you live even further away and you miss your bus or your carpool falls through, there’s no long walk – just a lost job.”
Concludes Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “Could we use more affordable housing in downtown Ithaca? Absolutely. And we’re working on that – we added 88 subsidized and market-rate apartments in the last year with the construction of Seneca Way and Breckenridge Place, and we will soon be adding about 100 more between Harold’s Square, Lofts at Six Mile Creek, and the Shalimar Building. But we could also benefit from rethinking how to estimate the cost of living.”