By Emily Miles
Amid a national depression, skyrocketing rates of foreclosure and record-breaking debt, Americans are struggling to buy and maintain homes. In the city of Ithaca, however, one organization strives to change that.
Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services functions under the motto of “Building neighborhoods, community, ownership,” and lists one main goal: “to serve all people seeking affordable housing.” Since its establishment in 1977, the organization has far exceeded its goals. INHS has recently expanded its services to all residents of Tompkins County, spanning beyond Ithaca City limits.
INHS serves to assist low to moderate-income families in obtaining quality, sustainable housing on a long-term basis. INHS believes this is the first step toward revitalizing neighborhoods and encouraging stability and diversity. Recently, the organization has also committed to creating energy-efficient housing and sustainable communities that benefit residents of all income levels and occupations.
“Promoting home ownership is considered key to meeting INHS’ goals,” Executive Director Paul Mazzarella said. He believes that when renters become homeowners, the whole community benefits. In order to achieve this, INHS offers affordable houses and townhouses for purchasing and owning and has also developed apartment complexes for renting.
“We believe in general that homeowners become stakeholders in their neighborhood and work with other residents to ensure the vibrancy of the neighborhood and make our community a better place to live,” Mazzarella said.
Overall, there is a fairly low rate of home-ownership in Ithaca, with only 26 percent of housing units owned by homeowners. According to Mazzarella, this rate is at 66 percent nationally and has risen steadily. It recently reached all time high of 68 percent. The reverse is occurring in Ithaca. Home-ownership has been declining. This is mostly due to the fact that more and more rental units have been built. There are also more renters in general with a high population of students and professors.
Mazzarella said that an important goal in the city has been to increase ownership. City officials believe that homeowners are a stabilizing force in communities because they tend to be “more engaged” and remain in the area for a longer time.
INHS also offers home buying classes to ensure that homebuyers understand the basic facts of the process, inspection, loans and signings. Just this year, the classes were offered on a sliding fee scale starting at $20.
“It’s practices like these that have enabled Ithaca to maintain its homeownership,” Mazzarella said. “Our programs are based on education, which is largely the national problem.”
Currently, only one INHS program is limited to city of Ithaca residents. The Senior Home Assistance and Repairs Program (SHARP) exists to offer free repairs to homeowners, only at the cost of materials. Natasha Tall purchased her house 15 years ago. Now, widowed and living alone, Tall relies on SHARP to maintain her home.
“When you are alone, it is so important to know that people will be there to help you and take care of you,” Tall said.
And INHS has been there through it all. Tall said, “the list would take days to produce.” Toilet repair, new windows, screens for the summer. If Tall has an issue with her house, she calls INHS and they send someone right away to take care of it. All Tall has to do is pay for the materials.
“What they do is really wonderful,” Tall said, “I know that if I need anything, they will be there for me.”
Without the help of INHS, Tall would have had to mortgage her home and face extreme debt. This is the exact problem that most homeowners in the United States are facing with the rise of subprime lending and “bad” banking practices. Subprime lending is typically offered to people with bad credit reports. INHS avoids this by offering affordable housing. Families in Ithaca are able to purchase homes without relying on lending.
Mazzarella believes Ithaca has largely avoided the foreclosure bubble. Typically, local banks in Ithaca do not offer subprime mortgages. Ithaca boasts an extremely low rate of foreclosure, ranking last nationally according to the New York Times. The city has also maintained a stable economy throughout the recent national depression.
Carol Eichler, the director of community relations at INHS, believes that ownership contributes to the feeling of community. Part of Eichler’s job is finding success stories and sharing them. In an interview with a young couple that had purchased their first home, Eichler asked the couple what ownership meant after the experience. The couple expressed their gratitude to INHS for assisting them in buying their first home.
“It completely changes people’s attitudes about their communities,” Eichler said.
Emily Miles is a freshman journalism major known for sharing her dollhouses with the community. E-mail her at [email protected].