There will be an opportunity for the public to address the Planning and Economic Development Committee on Dec. 11th at 6 p.m. in Ithaca City Hall’s Council Chambers during a public hearing that has been scheduled ahead of a discussion and vote on an ordinance concerning guidelines to develop Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). If you are negatively affected by infill housing restrictions or by owner-occupancy regulations, as my family and I are, I encourage you to make your voice heard by showing up to speak at the next City of Ithaca PEDC meeting.
There is a growing movement across NYS, and the nation, regarding the government's (and sometimes local citizens’) use of zoning to require people, via an outdated and arcane method, to personally occupy a property if they intend to rent a part of the property. Historically, this zoning was used to preserve "the characteristic of a neighborhood" with the idea that an onsite landlord would “control renter behavior.” But history and empirical evidence has shown that owner-occupancy restrictions cause more harm than good. So much so, that cities like Nashville, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Syracuse, and even small towns like Hempstead, NY have begun to remove owner-occupancy requirements. Removal of this owner-occupancy requirement has led to reducing housing discrimination and encouraging more people to not only buy but also simultaneously providing more housing options for renters. Of particular significance with ADUs, some renters might not be able to afford to buy a home in a particular neighborhood but can still have access to live in the neighborhood thanks to more accessory dwelling units becoming available. Requiring homeowner occupancy reduces the overall number of rentals available in a city and in some cases forces property owners to leave buildings on their properties vacant if they do not live directly on the property.
Even here in NYS, this dated zoning law requiring homeowner occupancy is being deemed unlawful. According to a very recent, December 10, 2018, court decision in Nassau County, NY, counsel representing the owner of a property the municipality was trying to force into owner-occupancy argued that, “the Board's imposition of conditions in the Decision, requiring that one of the units in the Subject Property be 'owner occupied', is illegal and unenforceable, as the Board does not have the power to impose conditions that seek to control what persons reside on a given property nor to prevent a fee owner from renting all or part of his property for a legal use.” The State Supreme Court Associate Justice Denise Sher agreed and annulled the condition in her decision, ruling that the antiquated use of an owner-occupancy requirement is illegal because it pertains to “who owns and occupies the subject premises and not the real estate itself. Conditions which relate not to the real estate involved, but to the person who owns and occupies the subject real estate, are invalid” (Sullivan v Board of Appeals of the Town of Hempstead).
There are other legal proceedings across NYS and elsewhere, several of which have referred to an older Appellate Court ruling (Tupper vs. City of Syracuse) that states, “a municipality can control how a property is used and not who lives in it.” The notion that a government can dictate where a person lives and how they use their own property, as in my own family’s case, is severe in nature, and surely not representative of the progressive and inclusive city I believe this community is trying to build. It is only a matter of time until the current owner-occupancy requirement, which the City of Ithaca currently deploys, will also be challenged in court.
This type of restrictive zoning has also created a strain on housing supply and turned off would-be buyers from purchasing a home to live in, simply for the fact that they do not want to get stuck living in it. For example, what happens in the case of being called to active military duty, a severe family illness, bankruptcy, divorce, relocation for work, or a growing family? As in my case, when I moved to Ithaca in 2004 to take a job with FedEx, I rented for a few years but became fond of Ithaca and wanted to settle long-term. As a young single professional, given Ithaca’s historically expensive rental and home purchase housing market, I couldn’t afford a large monthly rental or mortgage payment for a single-family home. I set out to buy a multiple dwelling unit (MDU) or ADU that would enable me to have a home and use the other unit to help pay my mortgage and taxes. I recognized that this opportunity would allow me to become a homeowner, with the flexibility of keeping the home long term as a rental if my situation changed, like getting married and having a family, which would require more space.
In 2006, I found the exact home I was looking for. With a letter in hand from the City of Ithaca Building Department dated February 27, 2006 stating that the home did not have to be owner-occupied, I made a purchase offer on a home in Belle Sherman and closed on May 5, 2006. Three days after closing, on May 8, 2006, my attorney David Parks received notice that the city reversed its decision and now my home had to be owner-occupied. David asked me if I had the money to fight this and of course, as a young professional just buying a first home, I replied that I did not have the resources to fight this injustice.
In 2014, to our joy we found out that we were expecting our first child. It was time to move on to a bigger place to raise our growing family. We listed the home for sale and, with three offers received, we were confident it would sell. All three buyers were just like me, almost 10 years earlier, young professionals who were looking to buy an affordable home to enable them to live, work, and play in Ithaca. However, all three buyers rescinded their offers for the exact same reason: there was just too much risk and uncertainty in owning a home where they would become hostages of their own home. Totally devastated, with a baby on the way, we were forced to take our home off the market and nest in place. Some have said to me, “just sell your home and move.” Been there, done that. It’s just not that easy to sell a property that has this type of owner-occupancy restriction on it. To this day, we still feel like “prisoners” in our own home as a growing family without options.
I could continue sharing as there is a lot more evidence of how a homeowner occupation requirement can negatively affect the diversity and stability of housing in a community but, in the interest of brevity, I will simply urge anyone who shares a similar experience or believes in housing equality for all people, to include renters and owners, to join me on December 11th in the Council Chambers in the Ithaca City Hall at 6pm. The Planning and Economic Development Committee is hosting their last public comment hearing on this issue before voting and they need to hear our voices!