Opinion piece by Barbara Regenspan, Emerita Professor of Educational Studies, Colgate University, and author of "Haunting and the Educational Imagination," (2014, Sense) and Ithaca resident.
I am writing to link two of the issues currently troubling us as a local community during this challenging historical period in order to address solutions. Last week’s Ithaca Voice informed the public of the site plan review application for a proposed mammoth 347-unit apartment building on East State St. This proposal to further gentrify Ithaca has been accompanied by no assurances of the affordable and low-income units our community so desperately needs during a period when the COVID crisis has made us all more aware of how high levels of social inequality hurt all of us. We also heard no explanation of Travis Hyde’s decision to invite in a developer from Atlanta, Georgia after his repeated claims over the years about his dedication to our local community and the importance of making sure that profits from development projects serve Ithaca’s tax base.
The connection with the crisis in policing needs to be made explicit: The mental health and domestic violence issues to which the police are regularly responding—for which they have almost no education in their heavily militarized and defensive training program--are typically created by miserable living conditions that provoke anger and mental health crises. By “miserable living conditions” I refer to the severe rent burden experienced by the high percentage of local residents who attempt to manage continual distress over having to make personally destabilizing choices among essentials they cannot afford: food, childcare, and healthcare.
The Common Council’s (as well as the TC legislature’s) refusal to consider an inclusionary housing law that would require all new building to substantially serve mixed--including low income residents—implicates our local elected officials in the crisis of policing that currently occupies much of their time and attention and will continue to do so. Nobody, of the many who testified so wisely at the Council meeting Wednesday evening about a necessary trade-off between policing and investment in greater social equality and mental health, is going to be satisfied with the current proposed budget.
What is clear is that we must end all consideration of any new building until we have passed a robust inclusionary housing law that would require all new housing to serve mixed incomes, including the requirement for at least 25% low income units. But I also want to tie this demand to the previous focus on the precious time and attention of our local elected officials. The now well-informed (through experience) public will not listen to any more disingenuous assurances that market rate and luxury housing like this proposed monstrosity on East State St. will lower rents and make affordable housing more available. Such “filtering” takes decades, and in housing markets lacking enough affordable housing, the only units that occasionally experience a slight lowering of rents are other luxury apartments. “Filtering” never filters down to those who need affordable or low income housing.
Further, many of us who repeatedly spoke out against the apparently legal manipulation of Travis-Hyde in his ability to serve only wealthy middle aged (50+) and elderly people on the old library property have reason to be further incensed, facing the new construction on that lot in our previously beautiful downtown. It’s not only that we and our children have lost precious and protective sidewalk and put up with ugly fencing for countless months. Ithacans should take note of the fact that the pleasant open space where the public could previously gather in front of the old library is now converting into an internal courtyard, forever closed off to public access. So returning to that issue of the necessarily limited time and attention of our elected officials, (whose intention to serve the public good continues to earn my deep respect), here I want to offer a forecast: On top of the continuing protests calling attention to the need for a shift in resources from the police—whose increasing militarization and defensiveness has made them less and less able to face actual public safety needs—you will now find your time and energy further sapped by protests from those of us devoted to making Ithaca a city that can humanely house its own workforce, including the unemployed and underemployed.
I urge the elected bodies responsible to immediately take off the table consideration of the monstrous new apartment building on East State St. proposed by Atlanta-based McKinley Development, and to devote their precious, necessarily limited time and attention to fulfilling recent official pledges to address racism—which we all know is propelled by and propels further gentrification. It’s time to attend to the needs of the community for a re-imagined conception of public safety based on greater social equality and related attention to what promotes positive mental health in us human beings—security about housing, food, healthcare, and quality public education including childcare.