How are Low-Income Ithacans Responding to Gentrification?

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How are Low-Income Ithacans Responding to Gentrification? A Mixed-Methods Project that Sheds Light on the Experiences of Marginalized Ithacans 

Author: Samantha Puzzi, undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences, Government and Philosophy majors

Abstract 

Gentrification affects communities around the world, displacing low-income residents in favor of projects catered to the wealthy. This phenomenon’s impact on highly dense urban neighborhoods has attracted considerable academic attention, but the effects of gentrification in more rural locales has yet to receive in-depth study. Additionally, the literature on the way specific sub-types of gentrification, such as studentification, play out in the United States remains incomplete. This project attempts to help fill in both gaps, investigating student-driven gentrification patterns in a college town outside of the urban core. Using the framework of studentification established in the UK, the transformations in Ithaca, NY over the past few decades can be better understood as linked to two distinct waves of change in the housing market. After discussing this pattern, the study moves on to highlight the experiences of marginalized Ithacans through the use of qualitative interviews with local residents, landlords, and housing advocates, who describe the unique struggles low-income residents of color face in a state of recent changes. 

Background 

The American college town is a unique space, constructed at the node of two distinct populations and often on the careful line between urban and rural. Typically imagined as the blissful balance between campus and community boasted in recruitment flyers, this setting comes with its own host of tensions, known as “town and gown” (Kenyon 1997, 287). Though one may believe the relationship between the two to be one of purely mutual benefit (and though these benefits surely exist), it is better envisioned as a game of tug of war, with the heart of the community at stake (Charles 2021). The campus plays an active role in shaping aspects of the locale, and more long-term occupants must adapt to, or choose to resist, the influence of the educational goliath. Many disputes are involved, from economic issues to the social values and cultural identity of the location. One overarching battle, that of the housing market, encompasses all three of these dimensions. Specifically, as an area grows in its off-campus student population, all aspects of the community face lasting change. 

While the influence of universities and their student populations on the surrounding areas has received increasing attention in recent years, these analyses typically occur in urban hubs and examine the effects of institutions such as the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Boston University, where classroom ends precisely where city street begins (Jackson 2014, Stewart 2019, and Kimmel 2019). But just because an area is a smaller metro or more rural setting does not mean that the same issues are not occurring there, but instead that its struggles have not received adequate attention. College towns are a distinct type of urban place, and issues here, such as housing patterns, play out in a way unique to this type of location (Grumprecht 2003, 51). College towns in the U.S. deserve academic exploration equivalent to the large cultural role they play all across the country, and it is important that we examine the effects of universities found in less populous centers. 

As defined by Gumprecht, the American college town is, “a place where the college or universities in the area and their culture has a dominant influence over the culture of a community” and a term that must be understood as representing a continuum of places rather than a precise definition (Grumprecht 2003, 51). The college town is the meeting of two different lifestyles and priorities: students want to live among each other in arrangements that are often hyper-social, while professors and permanent adult residents want to avoid living near the disruptive behavior of students. The result is two different types of neighborhoods, each with distinct social and cultural identities. But, with the rise of American student enrollment following World War II, colleges have become less and less equipped to house students on-campus, leaving students to extend their type of neighborhood into the off-campus community, offsetting the former balance and launching a host of new housing difficulties (Grumprecht 2003, 62). The resulting effects on the housing market and community identity caused by increased concentrations of students off-campus is labeled “studentification,” a phrase closely related to gentrification but where the gentrifies are strictly student populations (Smith 2005). 

The term studentification was coined not in the American college towns we are now discussing, and has been studied in them very little, but rather was created by looking at urban centers abroad and is most predominantly written on with regards to the United Kingdom. Smith and Hubbard drive the literature on the concept, using case studies from universities across the UK from the 1990s and 2000s, when those schools were experiencing booms in their student populations (Smith and Hubbard 2014). In this time period, the expansion of higher education policy drove more students to UK urban universities, where populations quickly began to outnumber the available dormitory beds (Smith 2005). Soon, students started to move off-campus, entering the local housing market and competing directly with long-term residents, including families, for housing options. The resulting housing situation played out over two distinct waves (Smith and Hubbard 2014, 92). 

With the arrival of these new students and the evident demand for new off-campus student housing, local landlords quickly saw an opportunity for profit and capitalized. Landlords began to outbid families when homes with close access to campus went up for sale, repurposing traditional family dwellings into group student housing for rent. This type of housing, known as Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs), rapidly transformed neighborhoods, pushing families out and bringing more temporary student populations in (Smith and Hubbard 2014, 93). Not only did this have economic impacts, as a new group of renters was introduced, but robust cultural ones as well. These areas were no longer quiet, courteous places to live, but homes to frequent partying, loud noise, unkempt lawns, and littered beer cans. These new neighborhoods have been called things such as “student ghettos” and “the urban dormitory” (Smith 2005, 75 and Revington 2018, 190). 

The second wave of studentification involved developers taking advantage of new student populations, their ability (or the ability of their parents) to pay high rents, and their want for a distinct student culture space and urban neighborhood. Developers decided to increasingly invest in these neighborhoods, building housing specifically designed for students and their way of life---with features such as common spaces, study rooms, and social spots. These options, known as Purpose Built Student Accommodations (or PBSAs) helped to create the student only enclaves or, as Smith and Hubbard call them, “student villages,” that young people in the areas desired (Smith and Hubbard 2014, 94). With this step, not only did local rents inflate significantly, as the new PBSAs came with more expensive price tags than HMOs, but the neighborhoods forever changed. New bars, clubs, and shops enjoyed by young people entered the area, finishing the transformation from quiet family area to busy student hub and creating a distinct student subculture. 

When students densify so quickly, the effects are numerous. In his 2005 article, Smith defines the four specific aspects of studentification and the resulting concerns local residents have when they see their neighborhoods so quickly changing (Smith 2005, 75). These are economic concerns, such as rent inflation, social concerns, such as the displacement of former residents by students, cultural concerns, such as the rise of student culture, and physical concerns, such as the downgrading of the environment through lack of care and partying (Smith 2005, 75-76). Tensions from these developments center around emerging “us versus them” mentalities, with students forming their own unique unit and long-term residents making up another. Permanent residents express anger when former community norms are ignored, but students simply want to live among other, like-minded young people (Sage, Smith, and Hubbard 2012, 1058-1060). Additionally, because students go home for summers and breaks, local residents complain that this “seasonal population churn” harms access to local services that may close during these periods because their main customers are students (Sage, Smith, and Hubbard 2012, 1068). 

These effects relate closely to the impacts of gentrification, leading many scholars, including Nakazawa, to classify studentification as a specific phenomenon under the larger umbrella of gentrification (Nakazawa 2017). In the past, students have merely been seen as what Smith and Holt call “apprentice gentrifiers,” or actors that will eventually be able to cause gentrification when they reach their earning potential (Smith and Holt 2007, 144). But, with these studies, students can now be seen as active gentrifiers in their local communities, who transform neighborhoods now rather than only building the capacity to do so later in their lives (Smith and Holt 2007, 144-145). 

It is clear that studentification is a sub-type of gentrification that deserves its own attention, and though it has started to receive this in urban epicenters abroad, the literature must dive deeper into college towns across the U.S., which may be the places most affected by studentification patterns. As Munro, Turk, and Livingston argue, studentification often produces the largest effects in small or midsized cities where a large fraction of the population is students, and these specific, local effects must be understood so small cities can combat harmful trends with policy (Munro, Turk, and Livingston 2009, 1808). In this paper, I will do just this, conducting an in-depth quantitative and qualitative analysis of one such college town to better understand how it relates to the broader literature on studentification and what can be done to improve relations between town and gown. 

As a distinctive type of gentrification, studentification contributes to the displacement, dispossession, and increasing inequalities we see nationwide. In Capital City, Samuel Stein discusses how the modern real estate state, focused on making sure properties function at their “highest value,” markets towards those able to pay higher rents and has no problem displacing those who cannot (Stein, S. 2019). This is a phenomenon we see not only in major cities across the country and the world, but also one that extends into more rural locations (like college towns) that have seen influxes of wealthy residents in recent years (such as student populations). In cities like New York, real estate giants stimulate luxury developments, and in the college town location, developers can similarly compete for profits made available by the presence of a university. So, it is important that we conceptualize studentification within this broader framework, and struggle, nationwide. 

When student renters begin to impact the local housing market and cause their own subtype of gentrification, the impacts are inherently skewed across racial lines. Based on Census data, 58% of Black American households and 53% of Hispanic American households were rented in 2019, compared with only 31% of white American households (“Who are the renters in America?” 2020). Additionally, Census data also shows that Black Americans make up 20.2% of all renters in the country but only 8.1% of all homeowners (US Census Bureau 2019). So, when rents rise, including as a result of inflation by off-campus student populations, the burden falls heaviest on residents of color, who are more likely to compete in the local renting market. Additionally, though these populations are already most vulnerable to struggles in the housing market, many developers and lawmakers target low-income neighborhoods for new luxury projects under the guise of “neighborhood improvement” (made possible through deliberate upzonings), intentionally raising rents and thus displacing minority residents at high rates (Stein, S. 2019). The incomes of minority renters over the past ten years have been notably lower than that of white renters, with Hispanic renters’ incomes being 15% lower and Black renters’ incomes being 30% lower than that of white renters nationwide (“Renter Demographics” 2011). This tells us that many Black and Brown residents are in need of affordable housing, access to which is directly impacted when an area begins to cater towards housing wealthy student populations. Any discussion of studentification should take these factors into account, and this project will provide additional focus on the unique experiences of low-income and Black residents living in college towns. 

Case Study: Ithaca, NY 

The commons of Ithaca, New York is sandwiched between two schools, Cornell University and Ithaca College, and built on almost a complete 1:1 resident balance of students and locals. Though it is a city of around 30,000, Ithaca’s housing market has become quite notorious, with rents that rival the most expensive cities in the country. In fact, a 2014 article in the New York Times placed Ithaca right behind New York City on a list of least affordable cities, coming in at number 11 nationwide (Stein, J. 2015). As can be seen in Figure 1, rent has skyrocketed even further since the release of the article, with current rates at almost $1,200 a month (American Community Survey 2021). One local housing advocate notes that rents in the area are “obviously too high” and that it is “clear” we are in a housing crisis. From 2010 to 2019, rent increased almost 37%, and from 2015 to 2019 it increased almost 18%, significantly higher than the rate of inflation over the same period. Figure 2 shows Ithaca’s 2019 rent distribution, with the largest fraction of individuals paying between $1,000 and $1,499 monthly (American Community Survey 2021). 

These rates are clearly lacking in affordability, but this becomes even more apparent when the amounts residents pay in rent is compared to their total incomes. Figure 3 showcases that disproportionately large numbers of Ithacans that spend 35% or more of their income on rent, with the exact statistic being 51.9% of residents spending more than 35% of income on rent in 2019, showing that high numbers of Ithacans are extremely rent-burdened (American Community Survey 2021). Additionally, in 2019, Ithaca’s rental vacancy rate was 4.0%, which leaves renters which few housing options (American Community Survey 2021). While many may wonder how a small urban center like Ithaca arrived at such a state of housing crisis, the key to the story can be found in its status as a college-town and its abundant off-campus student populations. Though this data shows a lot about Ithaca’s housing crisis, even more can be learned from the words of local residents. For this reason, I have conducted interviews with local Ithacan residents, housing advocates, and landlords to gain a more holistic view of the situation in this college town. 

Figure 1: 

graph of Ithaca Median Gross Rent: 2010-2019

Figure 2:

graph of Ithaca Gross Rent Distribution 2019

Figure 3:

graph of Ithaca Gross Rent as a Percentage of Income 2019

Though Ithaca is an American college town, one important feature of its universities sets it apart from other locations: students desire, and are often forced to, live off-campus. While most typically imagine the college experience as one where individuals are housed in communal living spaces (dorms and Greek houses), Cornell and Ithaca college students have a very different experience. Due to Cornell’s extremely limited housing options, only around 50% of undergraduate students live on-campus, leaving the other half, as well as hordes of graduate students, to enter the private housing market (Crandall 2016). All freshmen and sophomores at the school are guaranteed housing, but juniors and seniors are not, and typically elect to find their own housing arrangements in the campus-adjacent “Collegetown” rather than enter into the university’s uncertain housing lottery. One local housing advocate and former Cornell student cites the university’s inability to provide housing for all its students as the primary driver behind 

Ithaca’s housing crisis. Cornell has almost 15,000 undergraduates and 9,000 graduate and professional students, meaning that the university has introduced over 15,000 student renters to the community (Crandall 2016). Ithaca College, on the other hand, guarantees housing for all its students while only having the capacity for about a third of them, which isn’t a problem because upperclassmen often still choose to live off-campus for a feeling of additional independence (Golden 2017). 

But why have these students living off-campus become a problem for the Ithaca community? As previously mentioned, college enrollments in the U.S. spiked following World War II, and this is when student influxes into American universities began to outnumber available beds. However, housing these students was not an immediate concern for Ithaca, as students commonly lived in the community with their landlords into the 1940s (Golden 2017). In these scenarios, students found housing within the framework of family-oriented communities, living with long-term residents rather than buying spaces specific to students. During this time, as one landlord explains, what is now Collegetown was actually a relatively low-income area, occupied by many immigrant families. But its proximity to campus meant it was only a matter of time until its population began to change. So, as enrollments continued to rise, developers and landlords saw an opportunity for larger profits, as the story also went in the UK, and began to buy out family houses in the area that went on the market to convert them to student housing in the 1970s (Golden 2017). During this time period, low interest rates and re-zoning by the city provided the opportunity for change and lasting transformation of the campus-adjacent community (Golden 2017). It can be seen that Ithaca has very closely followed the studentification story that has received attention in the UK. 

In these converted units, traditional family homes were transformed to accommodate groups of students and often broken into multiple “apartments,” sometimes with each floor of the house having its own set of amenities, including a kitchen and bathroom. Houses like this can be seen all over Collegetown today, on streets like College Avenue, Eddy Street, Cook Street, Catherine Street, and others. When this happened, students were placed in direct competition with families for housing, and often won based on their (and their parents’) abilities to pay higher rates, pushing workers further downtown and often out of the city entirely. As a local Collegetown landlord explains, one way Collegetown has changed is that it has “almost no single-family homes or long-term residents anymore.” 

Figure 4 showcases how college-aged individuals grew in their proportion of the Ithaca population between 1950 and 2010 (American Community Survey 2021). We can see that the number of Ithacans aged 15-19 and 20-24 rose over this 60-year period, while virtually every other category decreased. Figure 5 displays how the prominent type of household in Ithaca has shifted, from majority family households in 1970 to majority non-family households (such as students living together) in 2010 (American Community Survey 2021). However, despite landlords buying out these spaces and charging students higher rents for them, one local advocate notes how many landlords in Ithaca “take advantage” of students and their parents’ wealth, charging extremely high fees for horrible living conditions. A local landlord reinforces this point, saying that many developers and landlords will provide students with such limited spaces that their units lack closets in the bedrooms or any common storage areas. 

As the studentification story goes, however, this “first wave” was not the end, but merely a segue into the development of student-exclusive apartment complexes. Since the turn of the 21st century, and especially in the past 5-10 years, more and more luxury student housing options 

have popped up all over Collegetown, charging extremely high rates for upscale apartments and amenities like fitness centers, rooftop lounges, laundry services, and more. Buildings such as Collegetown Crossing, 201 College Avenue, “The Lux,” and the new Student Agencies Building offer such accommodations in exchange for rents only wealthy students can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in The Lux goes for about $2,400 a month, rents which working class families in the city could never imagine paying (“The Lux” 2021). These rates have not only secured the buildings as student-only enclaves, but have driven up rental prices in surrounding neighborhoods, affecting local residents. As the same landlord details, the second way Collegetown has changed over time has been “taking things to an extreme and building things up to a crazy expense.” He describes the many new development projects as a sort of “game”, where landlords try to “squeeze as much out of the building…as many features, as possible, while trying to get the highest rent.” In such a game, developers are the ultimate winners, making huge profits, while students are forced to pay higher costs but by nature of their families are often able to do so, and local residents in nearby communities are the ultimate losers, impacted negatively by the inflation but reaping none of the benefits. 

With the influx of students into off-campus housing and the expansion of housing options, the territory occupied by Collegetown has widened, moving from just a few core streets to occupy a much larger area. As one local landlord puts it, Collegetown used to be a central few streets, or a “superblock,” namely College Avenue, Eddy Street, Dryden Road, and Catherine Street. But now, “because the core fills up so quickly” and rents here are so high, students have expanded their zone, with many students living as far down as Stewart Avenue and as far up as Elmwood Avenue, displacing more and more permanent residents as they move towards the Ithaca Commons and the Belle Sherman neighborhood. This landlord notes that long-term Belle 

Sherman residents are particularly vocal about opposing students moving into their neighborhood and preserving the family atmosphere, boasting a “not in my backyard” type-mindset. Residents here actively choose not to build rental units on their properties, though they could profit substantially from them, in the hopes that student populations will never infiltrate their neighborhood. Meanwhile, on Streets like Bryant Avenue and Elmwood Avenue, houses of college students and, as one landlord puts it, “small pockets” of long-term residents, including professors, find themselves neighbors, and often ones with tense relationships built on things like noise complaints. 

Figure 4: 

graph of Ithaca Residents: Age Distribution 1950 vs. 2010

Figure 5:

graph of Ithaca household type: 1970 vs. 2010

With these adverse effects of studentification clear, we must shift to highlight the particular experiences of marginalized Ithacans in the current housing crisis. These trends have especially impacted black and brown residents, who have been displaced from the Ithaca city center at disproportionately high numbers, as one local advocate explains. She notes that these families end up in more rural areas with poorer schools, further contributing to the harm done by the housing crisis. She says, “a lot of the black and brown residents the Ithaca Tenants Union speaks to don’t even live in the city anymore, but on the outskirts where they have been pushed.” This is a huge issue because, when this happens, these residents also suffer convenience costs, such as access to public transportation and local community services and programs. Additionally, as one Ithaca Voice article describes, rising housing prices are leading to racial segregation in the city, as whites “price out” minority populations in the city center and force them into less convenient locations (Rondem 2016). Black and brown residents are increasingly moving from the city center to neighborhoods such as West Hill, Belle Sherman, and Bryant Park, all which are “farther away from Ithaca’s city center when compared against other neighborhoods” (Rondem 2016). 

I spoke to one Ithaca resident with this experience, a woman of color with multiple children who described her story of being pushed out of the Ithaca city center. This woman lived in Ithaca for 6 years, until her rent rose too much and she was forced to move out of the city into Newsfield, where she has resided for the past 4 years. When she was forced to move, she was employed through Cornell University and worked in dining. She states, “Ithaca is expensive, and I couldn’t afford to live in the center of the city anymore. It is so much money, and they just cater to the college students, which is how they make their money, but there should be a way to lower the rent for the local people with regular jobs.” She makes one powerful statement, that Ithaca needs to “charge normal people normal rent,” not expect them to pay the same rent as the families of privileged students. She additionally discusses how she has noticed student apartment buildings being built further and further into the commons, as developers are, “building nicer and nicer apartments for the rich and white but nothing for the black and brown and working class.” 

This resident also points out how the influx of wealthy students has altered the businesses in Ithaca and how this adversely affects low-income residents and residents of color. She pinpoints the restaurants in the area as particularly unaffordable, tailored to the tastes of the wealthy. She says the “high end restaurants in the commons” are “catered to the elite,” leaving almost no ordinary options for regular people. “They only cater to the rich white people, businesses in the commons cater to this.” She is aware that, with the rise of wealthy students in the area, the entire consumer culture in Ithaca has changed, with the students’ tastes now driving 

the demand and leading to more expensive options popping up around the city while more affordable ones struggle to stay afloat. Other residents have picked up on this same pattern, leading to “The Unbroken Promise Initiative” in Ithaca following the George Floyd uprising in 2020 (Taylor 2020). This movement aims to bring more localized economies to marginalized communities in the city, such as providing affordable grocery stores, youth programs, and specific events to black and brown residents in the city living on the West end, helping maintain their community rather than allowing it to be swallowed by an emerging elite culture. 

What Can Be Done 

What can be done to alleviate the pressure caused by student populations on the Ithaca housing market? One local activist calls on Cornell University specifically to remedy the problem it has created by making more on-campus housing available. She notes that one college in another American town merely extended housing options to one additional year of undergraduate students and rents went down substantially, suggesting that Cornell could expand its housing options and do the same to ease the impacts on the local housing market and local residents. The issue is that, while Cornell is building new dormitories with thousands of new beds, they are not meant to house existing students, but rather allow the university to accept more students per class. The Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi discusses this with an interview available on Cornell’s website, where he says, “we guarantee housing to all first and second year students…so the way these are linked, enrollment and housing, is that we have to make sure we have more housing in place before we can grow enrollment further” (“Ryan Lombardi discusses housing, enrollment plans” 2017). So, the plan is not to expand guaranteed housing to upperclassmen, but rather just maintain the current housing promise for larger numbers of freshman and sophomores, not really taking any pressure off the local community or removing any current student renters from the equation. One Cornell Daily Sun article references this problem, stating, “plans to increase on-campus housing should be expanded, without requiring that more students enroll in the University” (Valdetaro 2019). 

But as one local advocate points out, though studentification has largely caused the housing crisis and the universities must contribute to a solution, “we could be doing things to keep rents lower, and we are not.” One possible answer would be to more strictly enforce existing regulations that prohibit members of three or more families (such as college students living with roommates) from living in single-family homes within the city. This would push student renters out of original family dwellings and back on to campus or to larger apartment complexes, allowing the homes to be used for family housing like in the past (Golden 2017). If this were done, family homes would no longer be broken into multiple apartment units and rented for rates in which each person is paying for his/her bedroom, but rather be marketed towards single families once again (at lower rates). Additionally, the Ithaca Tenants Union is currently fighting hard for the Emergency Tenants Protection Act (ETPA), which would be, as one activist calls it, “the first step towards rent stabilization in the city.” This policy would stabilize about ¼ of the buildings in the city, not a complete solution, but an important step on the way to lasting change in Ithaca’s housing policy. Nationwide, many communities are fighting for rent stabilization measures like this one, which would prevent landlords from increasing prices as an area becomes “more desirable” or gentrified, preventing current residents from being displaced as easily. 

Conclusion 

The housing crisis in Ithaca, New York has largely followed the pattern of studentification studied across the United Kingdom, where increased student populations raise rents and push existing residents out of college-adjacent areas. Two distinct waves, one where landlords repurpose family homes for student apartment housing and another where student-specific complexes are constructed, define this process and are evident when looking at the impacts of Cornell University and Ithaca College. These trends have expanded the bounds of student neighborhoods in Ithaca while forcing many existing residents to relocate in the face of absurdly high rents, especially low-income and black and brown Ithacans. The future of affordable housing prospects in the city will largely depend on the decisions of Cornell University and whether administrators will strive to house more students on campus, as well as regulations and rent stabilization efforts on behalf of the city. 

This case study not only provides valuable insights into the process of studentification and the tensions between student populations and local residents in college towns, but also illuminates how gentrification extends to areas outside of the urban core. Low-income residents in more rural areas are also affected by displacement, and these individuals are often relocated from small city centers, like Ithaca, to surrounding rural locations with less access to public goods, poorer school systems, etc. Additionally, black and brown residents nationwide, both those who live in large cities and small towns, face similar struggles in the housing market, as their neighborhoods are frequently targeted for upscale developments catered to the upper class. 

The findings of this project pose important questions for future study, those of both philosophical and practical natures. First, we must ask who has rights to the spaces and culture of a community when interests intersect, extending the theorizing of economic tensions in cities to the college town. Do students have a right to shape their homes away from home? Should locals hold control over their neighborhoods because they represent the more permanent population? Or can both groups have rights if the economic influence of students is confined to a campus setting as much as possible? Beyond these opportunities for future philosophical inquiry, we may also examine whether marginalized residents in urban and rural areas alike can unite in the face of increasing gentrification. Though movements against neighborhood change usually play out at the local level, groups across types of location can learn from one another, communicating effective techniques for resistance and possibly uniting localized efforts into a broader movement. 

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