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ONEONTA _ When it comes to Oneonta's housing issues, much of the discussion revolves around economics.

A wide-ranging summit Saturday morning at Center Street Elementary School was the first step in finding solutions to a myriad of issues related to housing, according to organizers.

"We have an array of problems and issues," Mayor Dick Miller said to about 100 people.

But the debate at the summit often referred to taxes, rental incomes, grants, poverty and economic development.

The participants representing a cross-section of the community turned out for the event. There were student rental owners, homeowners, college officials, owners of historic properties, bankers, city, town and county elected officials and city department heads.

There were so many people the supply of catered coffee -- intended for 50 people -- was depleted within a few minutes.

"This is an astounding turnout," Miller said.

No action items emerged from the three-hour meeting, and none were expected, said David Rissberger, council member for the Third Ward and co-organizer of the summit.

"I think we've laid the groundwork for some solutions," Rissberger said.

Rissberger said several groups were created to focus on key issues for the next several weeks and the summit would reconvene and look at potential solutions.

Rissberger and Ruth Allen, a retired Cornell Cooperative Extension educator, are co-chairing the effort.

"I think it went very well," Rissberger said.

In his introduction to the summit, Miller said some of the major issues he sees when it comes to housing is that higher-wage employees of companies, such as Ioxus and Corning, are having a hard-time finding quality high-end housing.

This, he said, comes at the same time that others, such as the staff and faculty at the Hartwick College and SUNY Oneonta, are having difficulty finding affordable housing. Senior citizens are often living in substandard conditions and vacant properties abound in the city, while the third- and fourth-floor spaces on downtown buildings are in some cases underutilized.

But for many people the discussion was largely focused on single-family homes versus student rentals.

"Student rentals are more profitable than other rentals. That's the issue," resident Barbara Roberts said during the free-wheeling discussion.

The increased profitability for student rentals has led to a decrease in owner-occupied, single-family homes as the value of houses in the city is inflated out of the price range for working families when they are marketed as rental properties, according to several people at the summit.

During a break, city resident Alan Rubin told The Daily Star he is a co-owner of 14 rental properties, including some college housing.

He said that overcoming the difference between what a landlord can earn from college students and what can be earned from year-round tenants is an obstacle. Changing that paradigm must somehow involve bridging that gap, he said.

"There needs to be an incentive. The economics do not work," Rubin said.

Karen Joest, a SUNY Oneonta human ecology professor, said the housing crunch has led to a segregated community with pockets of poorer residents

"We tend to hide those communities," Joest said.

Examples of this may be seen in some of the mobile home parks in the town of Oneonta, she said.

Oneonta Town Supervisor Robert Wood was also on hand for the discussion.

There are 175 units in four mobile home parks and another 94 in two mobile home parks that cater specifically to seniors, according to Wood

"To a certain extent, that is the affordable housing in the community," Wood said.

Many of the jobs on Southside are lower-paying retail positions.

"It doesn't pay to commute 40 miles with the price of gasoline to a job that pays $8 an hour," Wood said.

But finding housing in Oneonta can be a real struggle, he said.

Wood said the town has many of the same issues faced by the city and is seeing an increasing number of college rentals.

The participants initially broke down into 11 groups and then shared their concerns in an open forum. Areas for potential action were selected and the participants elected to join with a sub-group that appealed to them based in their specific concerns

Sub-groups were created during the meeting to address specific topics. The sub-groups are intended to act as committees to identify potential ways to deal with some of the major issues, according to Rissberger. The topics they were organized around include:

"¢ Increasing owner-occupied housing.

"¢ Decreasing the number of deteriorating/vacant/abandoned houses.

"¢ Improving the availability of non-student rental properties.

"¢ Improving senior citizen living conditions.

"¢ Increasing the occupancy of the second and third floors of downtown Main Street buildings.

The organizers floated through the meeting room as the groups were involved in discussions in an attempt to discern who among them might be a good fit as a group leader. Those identified will be contacted and asked if they would like to serve as chairman of their group, Rissberger said.

Rissberger said he and Allen will be in touch with the groups.

A second forum will convene in four to six weeks, bringing back the participants to share their findings and recommendations.

The mayor said the city could set aside some of its reserves to fund initiatives if anything eventually emerges from the summit and the sub-groups.

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