A few thoughts on the Hamilton Square project

By Barry Strom

This is an opinion/letter. If you’re interested in posting one, email it to nancy_tubbs@fullcalendar.com

I am writing in an attempt to bring an often unheard point of view to the discussion about the proposed Hamilton Square and similar projects: that of the intended beneficiaries — lower income individuals. I am not writing to express my personal opinion on how the proposed development will affect the village of Trumansburg. But if the goal of the Hamilton Square housing is to benefit those in need in our village and county, it is important that we ask some serious questions about how this housing will serve and meet their various needs before proceeding with the project.

I should preface with this: I am not a lower income individual and as such my personal experiences with housing are very different from those that would benefit from this housing. However, I spent 36 years of my life as a Clinical Professor at Cornell Law School and during that entire time my students and I represented low-income people in and around Tompkins County. While this gives me a bit of insight, I will be the first to admit it does not substitute for the real life experience of being poor and living from small paycheck or even smaller welfare check to the next, hoping not to run short before some additional money is available.

As you might guess from the above, I am generally in favor of affordable housing as most if not all low income people are. From my experience, however, lower income individuals want
good affordable housing, that is, housing that meets their needs. In addition to rental cost, these needs include: access to public transportation, access to basic services (grocery store and pharmacy), access to employment, and homes that make them feel as though they are part of a larger community and not simple placed in it.

Beyond the physical housing itself, the question of transportation must be addressed. Many low income people have no car or have a car that is unreliable and do not have the resources to repair the unreliable vehicle when it breaks down. This makes access to public transportation critical. At present, TCAT services to Trumansburg are limited to a few buses in the morning and a few in the evening, with only one bus during the day and no service after 7 PM. Low income people often have jobs that are not at regular 9-5 hours and have little flexibility in those hours. Additionally, many low income people have disabilities (even if they don’t meet the strict standards to get disability benefits). This means they often have mobility issues as well. Furthermore, even for those without mobility issues walking from the proposed site to Main Street can be a difficulty, especially in the winter. Do we know that TCAT will expand the services hours of the Trumansburg bus line and extend the route to include the new project in order to accommodate the needs of the new residents?

How about grocery shopping or going to the drug store?  It is a very long walk from the proposed site to Sure Save or Kinney Drugs, especially with bags of groceries.  How will residents get there? Take the bus? Remember we are talking about people with limited income and a bus with limited service. Will INHS provide a shuttle?

There is a long history of building affordable housing in urban areas. Much of that housing, while well-intentioned, has been unsuccessful. After learning from these mistakes, there has have been many successful affordable housing projects in urban settings. I don’t know enough, however, about the history of placing affordable housing in a small village 10 miles from the major employment center: my sense is the history is short.

INHS got its start by subsidizing low income people who wanted to rehabilitate single family homes for their own use. This led to high-quality affordable housing in which people had a strong emotional investment. Because these were single-family homes, density was not an issue. However this approach produced fairly limited numbers of housing units. There is an inevitable tradeoff in providing benefits to low income people where you have limited resources to draw from. You can provide better benefits to fewer people or lesser benefits to more people. In the affordable housing context once you set the rental parameters, the quality of the housing and the density (how many units and residents you fit in a given acreage) are the variable factors.

In the Trumansburg context, there is another element that links to the density question. If you live in an area that is densely populated with a lot of apartments, your affordable apartment, even if a bit smaller and of a bit lesser quality, does not make you feel like an outsider and your children do not feel they are very different. On the other hand, if you are isolated in apartments which are packed together in a separate enclave surrounded by mostly single-family homes, you feel separated from your community and your children feel some stigma. Housing which separates you from your community is not good housing, even if the physical quality is good.

Many years ago I was representing someone at the Seneca County Department of Social Services which was then housed in a farmhouse about 4 miles out of Waterloo. I asked the assistant commissioner: how do people who need assistance get out here? I was told that if they really needed it they could get out there. I have little doubt that people who need affordable housing will manage to get out here. I think we have a responsibility to make sure what they get is truly worth the trip. At that point, we all benefit. I urge folks who want affordable housing in Trumansburg to make sure the housing is good affordable housing even if that means reducing the number of units. The housing should meet the concerns addressed above and those that from my more privileged perspective I cannot readily identify.

Barry Strom
Clinical Professor
And Attorney at Law (Retired)
29 South St. Trumansburg, NY 14886

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