Later today, the Common Council will vote on a new ordinance to allow garages, sheds, and basements in existing residential areas to be converted into rentable units (called Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs). While many residents have expressed support for the initiative, tensions have been mounting over whether the Council will add an owner-occupancy requirement to the ordinance. Adding such a requirement would be a mistake. Such regulations limit housing stock and guarantee the legal right to discriminate. These regulations are the new frontier of exclusionary zoning, and the Ithaca Common Council should adopt the ADU proposal tonight tonight.
Ithaca’s extremely low 1% vacancy rate (compared to the 6.5% national average in Q4 2019) already drives rental prices dangerously high. According to RentJungle, the average rate of a rental unit in Ithaca has more than doubled since 2012, averaging $2,024/month in 2019. With rent prices so high and vacancy rates so low, competition for housing pushes our neighbors out, instead of prices down. Allowing ADUs “as of right” promises to address this problem by increasing our housing stock while avoiding urban sprawl. However, an owner-occupancy requirement strips away most of the benefits ADUs promised in the first place. Only 22% of units in Ithaca would be able to add an ADU in accordance with the owner-occupancy rule. This regulation, then, offers Ithacans no new benefit; it only leaves existing barriers entrenched in place.
Moreover, owner-occupancy requirements also exclude young families, low and moderate income people, and people of color from Ithaca. These people already struggle to afford to live in our community, especially in the single-family neighborhoods this ordinance would apply to. An owner-occupancy rule would not only make Ithaca less diverse, it would make our city even more divided between renters and those who can afford not to.
Worse still, owner-occupancy requirements also give the owner the legal right to discriminate. In Ithaca city code, anti-discrimination housing regulations make it unlawful to refuse to sell or rent property to people based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, socioeconomic status, among other criteria. Yet, landlords are free to discriminate against tenants “if such rental is by the occupant ...[or] owner of the housing accomodation and the owner resides in such housing accomodation.” In such situations, the antidiscrimination provisions “do not apply.”
Ultimately, to limit who may live in our neighborhoods through an owner-occupancy requirement reawakens injustices that Ithaca should have left behind long ago. Ithaca’s original zoning plans made it harder to fix poor living conditions in certain city neighborhoods. In a 1924 report, the planning consultant the city hired, Russell Van Nest Black, noted the“bad conditions in the west end, particularly in the neighborhood of the railroads and the inlet.” Yet, instead of helping those
communities, he suggested zoning the area for industrial use. Today, the West End stands as the neighborhood with the highest concentration of African Americans living in Ithaca, according to the 2010 census. Such housing regulations made Ithaca less friendly for some groups for far too long--it’s time our community learned its lesson.
Ultimately, owner-occupancy regulations would undercut the small improvement to Ithaca’s housing situation ADUs promise. Its effects on housing costs would lock would-be neighbors out of our community, and make Ithaca more exclusive. The owner-occupancy proposal should be rejected: the Common Council should do its part to end this regretful history in Ithaca.