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Living and working in Tompkins County isn’t cheap.

From housing costs in the county’s economic center to the sprawling communities that feed the vibrant city’s bustling schools, offices and restaurants, making your way in Ithaca – whether by making your rent payments while living there or putting gas and work into the vehicle that takes you there from your more affordable home in the countryside every day – costs a lot of money. For some people, the solution to high housing costs in the city and near their jobs is to move out into more affordable homes in the county’s outlying towns and villages, relying on mass transit (often at a premium for their location) or their car to get to work. Others, seeing the expense in car ownership – from insurance costs and gasoline to routine maintenance – may stay downtown, foregoing the car in favor of the cheaper modes of walking and biking to make up for the hike in housing costs. 

In each scenario, there is a trade-off. But how do you know if you’re getting the best deal from your lifestyle?

In January, local consulting firm Randall West – in partnership with collaborators from Ithaca Carshare and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Way2Go – released a survey trying to find out: How much do you make? How much do you spend on housing every year? How often do you drive? With the theory that, through their questioning, they would be able to answer that question.

Six months and 64 respondents later, the group may have something resembling an answer.

In a conference last week, the project team presented True Cost Tompkins, an online, interactive map powered by the data collected from the survey exploring the combined housing and transportation cost of residents in various parts of Tompkins County. Detailing affordability for members of moderate as well as low income families, the project is meant to show hotspots of affordability for a general slice of the population merging both what their housing costs and transportation costs are and how much the give and take is between each expenditure.

According to True Cost Tompkins’ estimates, affordability is defined as no more than 30 percent of your income going toward housing and less than 15 percent to transportation, defining unaffordability as paying more than 45 percent of your income on either. While some places in Tompkins County were found to be relatively affordable for people of moderate incomes, for people of both modest and average incomes, one thing was clear: combined, housing and transportation costs in Tompkins County are, in most areas, extremely prohibitive.

But every data set has a human side and, because the numbers are general, True Cost Tompkins has another, more personable component to it: the individual stories of the people they surveyed themselves. In 12 individual case studies of respondents with a wide variety of housing situations and incomes, the survey seeked to provide an analysis of not only what would typically be affordable for someone in a similar situation, but to prospectively highlight other means of getting by in Tompkins County if they found a means to change their living situations.

Of course, many of their case studies included deficiencies in their living situations as well. While one respondent making $35,000 a year and living in Dryden’s Poet’s Landing spent just six percent of their income on transportation (though, even on a bus line, the cost of ongoing longer distance medical trips proved to be a strain), another 35 percent went toward housing. Another respondents, a co-living situation in Enfield of three people making a combined amount of less than $80,000, bought a fixer-upper home and share a cheap car, keeping them well below the affordability mark at 31 percent.

According to the project team, the objective was to make the information available so people can meet about it in their own communities, using their own localized data, and try to adopt affordable transportation plans for their communities with the recognition housing costs and demographics differ widely among communities across Tompkins County.

The full report can be found at ccetompkins.org/community/way2go/true-cost-tompkins.

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