Binghamton University says it's building up Johnson City's economy, but at what cost to affordable, family housing?
Eve Francis moved to Johnson City from New York City with her son a decade ago after a friend told her about the good local schools.
“I came up here for the schooling,” Francis said outside the Save-a-Lot on the village’s Main Street. “She also told me about how they’re good with children. And so I wanted to have my granddaughter, get her special needs met, and my daughter. And so I like it up here.”
Francis doesn’t have a car, and likes that supermarkets and Walmart are within walking distance from her home a few blocks away. She can pull her young granddaughter, who shows off a Moana-branded umbrella, in a red fabric wagon to and from errands.
But that walk, she said, isn’t as peaceful as it used to be.
“Before, if you walked in Johnson City, you would just hear kids laughing and giggling. Now you don't hear that,” Francis explained. “All you hear is construction.”
It’s the sound of Binghamton University (BU) expanding its Johnson City campus. The public college opened the smaller, satellite campus for its nursing and pharmacy programs in 2018.
Built up and torn down
The university received more than $100 million from the state to develop the campus in Johnson City in 2016. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the move would help spur economic development and create jobs in the village, which has suffered from the loss of manufacturing giants like the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company.
The university’s Decker School of Nursing is now housed in Endicott-Johnson’s former shoebox factory, located at 48 Corliss Ave. Speaking at the facility’s ribbon cutting ceremony this past October, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the campus could change “the psyche” of the community.
Leaders at BU, too, have championed that message.
“What’s there now is just a very small shadow of what was there previously, and our goal, hopefully, is to return it to something similar to what George F. Johnson created,” University President Harvey Stenger said in 2017.
Stenger said the university must develop the neighborhood’s landscape into something that is “flexible”. To reach that goal, the university’s development arm, the Binghamton University Foundation, has acquired more than 30 plots of land since it began construction of its campus in 2015.
Early-acquired plots house the glass-enclosed, state-of-the-art facilities for its health sciences programs. Others are intended for campus administrative offices, a research and development facility and an elder care clinic.
Then there are those that will go to create more parking and a park that connects the campus to Main Street a couple blocks away. Stenger, as well as village, county and state leaders, say that will bring more people and money to Johnson City.
But much of the land the university’s foundation purchased—or received via donation from Broome County—had homes on them. In the name of economic revitalization, the university has demolished roughly 50 places to live, from single-family homes to apartments, in an already tight housing market.
Mapping the impact
The buildings BU acquired exist mainly within a few blocks of each other. Among them was a closed Vietnamese restaurant, a laundromat and a dentist’s office.
The acquisitions also led to the demolition of an apartment building with six walk-ups, and another with 12 units.
At the Save-a-Lot, Eve Francis points to a nearby grassy field. It used to be a five-story building with 20 apartments. BU purchased the plot on Lewis Street and tore the building down last year.
“And then all the children that were in those tenement buildings there, they moved out,” Francis said. “And so there's nobody, no kids there to play.”
Still, some local leaders have said the homes BU acquired needed to be torn down anyway.
“In their defense, they’ve taken some really nasty properties off the tax rolls,” said Johnson City Mayor Martin Meaney.
Meaney said these demolitions benefited the community by taking older, unsafe housing off the market.
As of 2016, nearly half of homes in Johnson City were built prior to 1939. The housing stock includes many properties built by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, which subsidized housing for its employees to rent throughout the village.
New housing developments are under construction in Johnson City. Developers are turning Endicott-Johnson's former Victory building, on Lester Avenue, into a mixed-use space with over 150 luxury lofts.
That could replenish the village’s housing stock, Meaney continued, and create vacancies if people in the village move from their current home to a newly-renovated space.
“As all these new developments open up, you’re gonna see people funnel into the places that just became vacant,” Meaney said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the people at risk of displacement from Johnson City would be able to afford those potentially-vacant homes. Nor does that mean people already living in stable homes could afford to move into luxury apartments.
“To get an apartment, you need at least two-grand to get first month’s, last month’s – whatever the landlord is asking,” said Hope Matthews, who runs the food pantry at St. James’ Church on Main Street, just a few blocks from the campus. “Who can come up with that money right now, especially someone that just doesn’t have it to begin with? That’s something you have in your savings account.”
In recent years, rent has sharply risen nationwide. At the same time, poverty has also grown, across the United States and in Johnson City.
In 2020, nearly 30% of students, ages 5 to 17, in the Johnson City Central School District experienced poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That is the highest it’s been since 2013. The school district’s poverty rate has remained consistently above state and national averages since 2006.
Overall census data shows one in five people who live in the village experience poverty, higher than the county average.
Matthews has lived in Johnson City her entire life, and has seen businesses on Main Street shutter. Speaking outside the pantry in February, she said she thinks BU’s investments are good for the community. She wants money to flow into the village, but not at the expense of low-income residents.
“We can’t forget about the people that have been here for the last 10 years because it’s cheap living,” Matthews said.
When Eve Francis, the mother outside the Save-a-Lot, moved to Johnson City 10 years ago, a one-bedroom apartment cost her $495 a month.
She now pays $725 monthly for the one bedroom where she, her son, daughter and granddaughter live. That accounts for most of her income, which comes from disability.
She has looked for bigger places to live in the village, but she can’t afford them.
“The ones that are adequate for your rent are mostly for [BU] students,” Francis added.
Off-campus housing remains concentrated in and around Downtown Binghamton, which neighbors Johnson City. But Francis said she’s seen some of her neighbors pushed out by rent hikes and students move in.
Francis said the new student-neighbors she’s met so far are nice. But she sees landlords preferring to rent to students—something fair housing advocates say has occurred with increasing frequency in college towns statewide. That’s contributed to what housing experts are calling “crisis-level” shortages of affordable housing for families.
Meanwhile, there is more than enough housing for college students. A 2017 study commissioned by Broome County’s industrial development agency found that, with respect to Binghamton University’s enrollment and on-campus housing, the existing stock of off-campus student housing has “reached a maximum level of supply”.
Nearly all of that housing, too, had been constructed in the “group style”, which is not easily converted back into traditional apartment units for families.
Still, a few blocks from her home on Grand Avenue, a luxury student housing development called Campus Square opened in 2020, with apartments starting at $700 monthly.
Calls to reduce harm
Landlord discrimination in favor of college students is well-documented in Binghamton, where BU owns a single downtown building for its College of Community and Public Affairs.
CNY Fair Housing, a non-profit that contracts with local governments to address housing discrimination, found landlords in Binghamton discouraged families with children from living in certain housing by advertising student preferences and unaffordable rents.
The organization’s 2015 report on impediments to fair housing in the city found landlords illegally denied families the opportunity to live where they choose, and documented the limited availability of family-oriented housing.
Local housing advocates have raised alarms that the same systemic discrimination is occurring in Johnson City as the university expands there.
“We shouldn't be focused on more amenities and activities for those who already have more than enough locally,” said Rebecca Rathmell, a long-time housing advocate in the region. “We need to start by prioritizing the needs of our most vulnerable residents, and then building a strategy from there.”
Rathmell, who previously led Broome County’s safe housing task force, said people displaced by demolitions and rising rents throughout the county often end up in the Department of Social Services’ emergency shelter programs.
Binghamton University's administration declined multiple interview requests for this story, but, in a statement, a spokesperson for the university said the school did extensive research when developing the campus, and are confident it positively impacts residents and the downtown business district in Johnson City.
"We will continue to listen to the residents of that community and municipal leaders to ensure we help the community reach its goals," said BU spokesperson Ryan Yarosh.
But Rathmell questions whether the positive monetary impact of BU’s investments in Johnson City outweigh the financial strain local homeless agencies face.
Leaders at the Broome County Department of Social Services say these programs are in a crisis; the agency is running out of temporary housing for displaced and homeless people.
“They’re spending millions each year just to keep people homeless in hotels, and we’re running out of hotel rooms at that,” Rathmell said.
“No one is saying BU is a bad thing. No one is bemoaning their capacity to grow as an institution," Rathmell continued. "They are, however, having a harmful impact and they need to acknowledge that, and they need to commit to reducing that harmful impact.”
Rathmell is a member of the Stakeholders of Broome County, an advocacy group that's, in part, pushing BU to contribute financially to the creation of affordable housing in the area. A model exists in Tompkins County, where Cornell University commits $250,000 annually to a community housing development fund held by the county and City of Ithaca.
For now, affordable options for families in Johnson City are increasingly scarce. Francis laughs when she thinks about what she’ll do if she gets priced out of her apartment.
“Once [rents] get too high, then I figure I’ll go make some roommates and we all gonna go and just become a BU student,” she chuckles. “And go live in student housing.”
Then maybe she’ll be able to stay in the area.