Fund has helped create nearly 400 affordable housing units

By E.C. Barrett
Tompkins Weekly

ITHACA – The Community Housing Development Fund released its 2017 Notice of Funding Availability with a shift to rolling submission deadlines in the hopes of making the application process easier to anticipate. A joint venture of Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and Cornell University, the CHDF provides grant funds to support the rehabilitation and new construction of affordable housing in Tompkins County by not-for-profit agencies, municipalities, Public Housing Authorities, and private, for-profit developers.
Since it’s founding in 2009, the CHDF has awarded $2.9 million to fund 396 units in Tompkins County, from larger Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service and Tompkins Community Action projects to single units in the White Hawk Ecovillage and Habitat for Humanity builds.
According to Tompkins County Senior Planner Megan McDonald, the CHDF evaluates project applications for affordability, location, density and sustainable building practices, in keeping with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
“The program looks at smart growth and green building, as well as location. Access to public transportation, ensuring people have access to jobs and services, is an important aspect of the program’s assessment,” McDonald said. “We look at project design, property tax impact, whether the developer has a track record of being able to make this happen, and how close the project is to being ready to move forward.”
To receive the maximum award amount of $40,000 per owner-occupied unit and $30,000 per rental unit, capped at $400,000 and $300,000 per project, respectively, units must be affordable to people with household incomes of 80 percent or less of the area median income – $53,889 in 2015 according to the U.S. Census.
Developers must also commit to ensuring the units remain permanently affordable. One way of keeping owner-occupied housing affordable in future sales is through the community housing trust model.
“When developers build for sale housing they put the houses in the trust and it limits the equity that can be taken out to maintain the affordability for the next buyer,” McDonald said. “We want to make sure the public support that kept it affordable for the seller, who will still make some money from the sale, will live on from buyer to buyer to buyer.”
According to Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Director Nels Bohn, the CHDF was founded partly in response to a housing assessment study done in 2005, which determined a need for approximately 4,000 additional housing units, about half of which needed to be affordable housing, with more recent studies indicating the same.
“Since that time incomes have stagnated and housing prices have continued to increase every year, and the need for affordable housing has increased every year simply because income has not kept pace with housing costs,” Bohn said. “We hear more and more from people saying they can’t afford to live in the City of Ithaca.”
Although the funds available through the CHDF won’t be enough to support full projects, Bohn says a grant from the CHDF may help developers secure other funding.
“The trick with affordable housing projects is you need many funding sources,” said Bohn. “This shows other funders there is a local commitment, making projects more competitive.”
The original six-year fund agreement expired in 2015, but was renewed by all three entities for another six years, with the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County contributing $100,000 each to the fund every year and Cornell University contributing $200,000.
“The goal was to bring together a variety of different funders,” Bohn said. “We’ve always wanted to expand that to other municipalities and employers but so far it’s been the core group.”
John Gutenberger of Cornell’s Office of Community Relations explained Cornell’s interest in contributing to the fund.
“The primary reason is the condition and availability of good, safe and affordable housing in our area is vitally important to Cornell staff and faculty,” Gutenberger said. “A sub-reason, if you will, is that having affordable, safe and decent housing is certainly a good recruiting tool for any business in Tompkins County and, as the largest employer, Cornell does a good bit of recruiting. It’s also important for sustainability reasons, to have housing closer to the workplace, so people don’t have to commute as far to work.”
Gutenberger thinks these same benefits should attract other large employers to joining the CHDF.
“Besides the ability of their employees to live closer to the workplace, which has its advantages, certainly the major employers in Tompkins County are all recruiting elsewhere for employees, so the availability for good, safe, affordable housing is important.”
For more information on the CHDF and to view the application materials and evaluation process, visit www.tompkinscountyny.gov/planning/housing-choices-housing-fund.