How's Your Housing?

Susan Ottenweller, of Better Housing for Tompkins County and BHTC property manager Rick Cowan at 85 E. Main Street in Trumansburg village, an elegant older home retrofitted to make affordable apartments.

Presenting the results of a survey of village residents, Stefan Lutter told the Trumansburg village board of trustees that affordable housing is something people find lacking. “People repeatedly indicated a need to increase population in the village to make it more affordable for all.”

“There was a preference for new home and senior housing,” said Lutter. Stefan and Jenny Lutter were appointed by the village to summarize the recent survey of village residents. The survey was conducted online, and also attached to residents' water bills. Stefan presented their findings at the Monday, January 11 village board meeting.

The village, Lutter noted, has a lot of older, larger homes, which are hard to keep up for senior citizens, and too much to take on for young couples. “First time homebuyers and seniors who want to remain independent (prefer) smaller, newer homes.”

Residents who answered the survey touched on Trumansburg's lively atmosphere and walkability, its sense of community, as reasons they chose to live here. Some feared that they would be priced out of the village, however: “Thirty percent cited taxes as a concern... many residents also cited concerns about a decreasing school population and the need to attract more young families.”

Lutter also said there was a “disconnect” between the density people said they wanted, and the built environment that supports that. For instance, “Whig Street, which is medium density, the one people preferred the most, isn't doable now.”

The village's current zoning wouldn't allow new buildings on lots the size of the ones on Whig Street, said Lutter. Projecting a chart on the meeting room wall, Lutter compared the minimum lot size in Trumansburg (15,000 square feet) with that typical of Fall Creek in Ithaca (3,000 square feet). “As Whig Street appears now, you could not replicate it under current zoning law.”

“The zoning has no correlation to the historical character of the village and doesn't support the things people want, from a planning perspective,” said Lutter.

Don Ellis, a long time member of the planning board, criticized Lutter's finding that the village lacks affordable housing. “The data does not support the contention that the cost of housing is going up,” said Ellis. Ellis characterized dense housing as having “an elevator and several stories,” and said, “I think people have a lot of trouble imagining the kind of density we need.”

Ellis also criticized the language of the analysis as being “biased toward houses on lots.”

“Affordability is a significant concern in the survey,” said Lutter, reminding Ellis that their task had been to summarize the survey findings. New board member Rachel Kennedy asked Ellis why he was disputing the rise in the median housing cost: “The point is, Trumansburg is not affordable. The result is the same, if fewer people can afford to live here.”

Ellis insisted, however, “Prices are not rising,” and questioned the numbers for rental housing; “traditionally, it's much more difficult to get accuracy with rental costs.”

Resident Sarah Adams backed Ellis up, and said the survey response, 153 out of 800 village residents, wasn't broad enough. “I also feel that zeroing in on housing is a mistake. Building more houses for people to drive into Ithaca for a job is just sprawl. Just building affordable housing, I don't see how that's going to get us out of the hole.” Adams said the bigger picture, including job creation, needs to be looked at, and she wanted a broader community conversation.

Deb Watkins, on the village board, reminded Adams, “I was there for the creation of the comprehensive plan, and so were you. No one showed up until it was ready to go out.”

Dolores Higareda said the survey should have been mailed to every household, but village clerk Tammy Morse said they were constrained from doing that because it would have constituted an illegal referendum.

Victoria Romanoff proposed making part of Main Street a historic district.

Lutter wrapped up his presentation, handing it off to trustee Rordan Hart. “The purpose of the committee was to collate the data and advise the board,” said Hart. “The board now has to decide what to do.”

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