Laura Lewis started on the Ithaca Common Council as the Fifth Ward representative in 2017 after winning the special election following the departure of previous council member Josephine Martell. In the two years since she, like her fellow council members, has found that the job has a steep learning curve. Now, she wants to continue working on current projects, and apply what she’s learned to new ones.
Lewis is a 40-year resident of the City of Ithaca, living the entire time in Fall Creek. Both of her now adult sons attended schools in the Ithaca City School District and for 30 years she worked at Cornell University in student services in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. After retiring in 2016 she decided she wanted to take her interest in local issues and activism to the next level. One of the main issues of her platform was addressing the housing crisis, and creating more affordable housing. It’s an issue she knows well.
“I did grow up in a single-parent household, a poor single-parent household,” Lewis said. “I’m the only person in my family to go to college. I grew up in rental housing, sometimes not the best rental housing.”
It was this connection to the housing issue that led Lewis to join the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) Board of Directors, and at one point serving as the board’s president, chairing the Executive Director search committee.
While reviewing the proposals for the Green Street Garage redevelopment project, one of the key criteria for Lewis was the inclusion of affordable housing. The chosen proposal from Vecino Group developers will be all affordable housing. But Lewis also understands that just calling something “affordable” doesn’t mean it’s affordable to everyone. It’s one of the reasons she said she’s so happy that INHS is doing the work that they do, to create housing for a wide range of incomes to help meet the range of what “affordable” can mean. The large affordable housing 210 Hancock Street is just one of the INHS projects that Lewis describes as a win-win.
“For the community, for families,” Lewis said. “My view has always been that housing stabilizes neighborhoods.”
Before running in the special election, Lewis had never run for public office before. She had volunteered in numerous capacities for the local Democratic party committees and organizations. While housing is one of the most prominent issues that Lewis ran on, it’s hardly the only one. As a resident of the City, she said she loves how walkable it is and wants to continue making Ithaca an easy place to get around without a car.
As of this past January Lewis is a member of the TCAT Board. The public bus system is facing challenges, but she’s a fan of facing challenges. Currently, TCAT is working on upgrading an aging fleet, getting more electric busses, and working in a facility that’s too small.
Looking ahead, outside of transportation and housing, Lewis also wants to continue working on infrastructure issues in the city.
“We have a really aging, under the ground infrastructure in this city,” Lewis said. “That’s a function of the age of the pipes. It’s a function of the freeze-thaw, and water getting under that erodes pipes that are in some cases 100 years old.”
Like her fellow council members, Lewis is proud of being able to increase funding for the Department of Public Works to add more members to the streets and facilities crew, and the water and sewer crew, to more quickly address these issues. Dredging of the local creeks to help prevent ice jams and flooding is an infrastructure problem that Lewis watches happen in real time out of her window each winter. It’s an issue the City must work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to address.
But the successes often come up against the constant challenge of having limited financial resources.
“It costs a lot of money to run a city,” she said. “There’s a real need to increase revenue in the city, and how do we do that without overburdening taxpayers, property owners. We want services. Who is going to pay for the services?”
Circling back to creating a walkable city, Lewis wants to see the tax base grow by creating more housing and a walkable infrastructure so that people can live where they work and have less need for a car.
“We need to bring more people into the city who have the choice to live in the city, maybe not have a car,” she said. “If we want to be able to keep our tax rate at a reasonable rate, we have to create revenue, which means bringing more people in to live, to shop in the city.”
If re-elected, her priorities will mostly focus on infrastructure: the quality of roads, walkability, dredging the creeks, and the quality of sidewalks. Home assessments and property taxes are also on the list. These are the issues she’s heard about from her constituents. As a candidate, she wants people to know that she cares deeply about the City of Ithaca, she has a personal investment in its success as a homeowner who raised a family here, and that her constituents can always contact her to discuss their concerns.
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