Common Council Passes Ithaca Housing Authority’s Request To Move Public Housing Private

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Updated: 8/5/21 — 4:30 P.M.

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The Ithaca Common Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to allow the Ithaca Housing Authority (IHA) to transfer three of its public housing complexes to its private, non-profit branch.

The agency will use private funds to rehabilitate the buildings, including to demolish and reconstruct its largest affordable housing development.

The Ithaca Housing Authority plans to demolish and rebuild the Northside Developments, a public housing apartment complex in Ithaca. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees and funds public housing nationwide, has an estimated $35 billion backlog of unfunded capital projects. That has made it harder for public housing agencies that rely on HUD funds to make much-needed repairs.

According to IHA Executive Director Brenda Westfall, the buildings in question are all close to 50 years old. The Northside Developments, specifically, have faced several major mechanical issues since their construction.

“The mechanicals underground are aging. We’ve had natural gas leaks underground. We’ve had water-main breaks underground,” Westfall explained. “All of those are very expensive to fix.”

Making repairs in piecemeal, Westfall added, is no longer cost effective for the agency.

Because HUD is unable to fund repairs swiftly, the Ithaca agency will opt-in to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), a HUD program that allows public housing authorities like Ithaca’s to use private funds and lines of debt to finance construction.

Westfall said the decision to opt some of its property into RAD was not one the organization weighed lightly.

“There’s no take backs. If you transition to this and it doesn’t work, you don’t get to say to HUD, ‘Oh, it didn’t work, I just want to be public housing tomorrow,'” Westfall continued. “There’s no take backs. You’ve got to get this right.”

IHA plans to sell the Northside Developments and two of its other apartment complexes to the Cayuga Housing Development Corporation, the agency’s non-profit arm. While the development corporation will create business entities to own the properties, IHA will continue manage operations at the apartments.

The housing authority plans to tear down the 70-unit Northside apartment complex and put up 82 condominium units in its place, a rebuild that is expected to take around three years to complete.

Southview Gardens and Overlook Terrace, two of the agency’s smaller properties, will undergo less time-consuming renovations.

All of the properties will remain affordable for low-income households and accept housing vouchers that ensure tenants do not spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio

Seph Murtagh is a member of the Ithaca Common Council. (Celia Clarke/WSKG)

Current tenants of the Northside Developments will be prioritized for housing if they choose to apply once it is rebuilt, and residents at the other two complexes will have a right to return to their previous homes once renovations are complete. For now, renters will receive Section 8 vouchers to relocate to other affordable housing options.

Prior to the Common Council vote, Seph Murtagh, Chair of the Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee and Alderperson for Ithaca’s 2nd Ward, said having to relocate residents was a concern. Displacing tenants, he said, can be a huge inconvenience, especially in a city that already lacks affordable housing.

“Even if it’s just temporarily, and eventually they’re coming back to the new housing once it’s been renovated,” Murtagh said.

Murtagh said he worried tenants who are displaced from the housing authority’s buildings may need to move out of Ithaca or to neighborhoods farther from jobs and public transit.

But opting-in to RAD, Murtagh said, is the best plan to sustain the long-term viability of affordable housing in the city.

“I think it’s the right thing to do because what’s the alternative, right?” Murtagh asked. “That we just let this housing deteriorate?”*

IHA’s Westfall said relocation specialists at the agency are helping tenants find new housing well in advance of the demolition and construction, which can start as early as December.

*This story was updated with new information on the Ithaca Common Council’s vote and the Ithaca Housing Authority.