Affordable, healthy, and comfortable housing is a basic human right and home ownership is a major factor in the creation of individual and family wealth in the US and locally. There is clear evidence of structural racism in housing in Ithaca and Tompkins County, with considerable racial disparities in home ownership and in access to livable rental units, and vast accompanying gaps in wealth and quality of life. These inequities are due, in part, to market-based as opposed to needs-based development and are exacerbated by Cornell University’s decisions regarding enrollment and student housing. They also result from the same long history of housing discrimination found throughout the country. As a result, in the last few decades, people of color in Ithaca have experienced considerable displacement from and fragmentation of their long-standing communities. This shift has often been from the Southside, Southwest, and Northside neighborhoods of the City of Ithaca to housing developments in the Town of Ithaca on West Hill and in neighboring towns. Besides disrupting neighborhood relationships, the displacement increases transportation costs and time expenditures for families who either have to wait for infrequent buses or spend thousands of dollars on automobile ownership.
It is estimated that from 1934 until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (which officially banned redlining) only 2% of FHA loans went to African Americans.
Here is one prominent national example of how the cumulative effects of housing policies and practices keep reproducing racialized inequities to this day: In 1934 the US government set up the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to promote homeownership throughout the nation. The FHA established “redlining,” a policy that intentionally kept African American households from getting housing loans that were available to whites, by refusing to lend in areas circled in red because they considered the so-called “risk” of lending in those areas too high. It is estimated that from 1934 until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (which officially banned redlining) only 2% of FHA loans went to African Americans. This simple historical fact explains much of the inequality in homeownership and the vast differences (10:1 or 13:1) in household wealth. A recent study (Sullivan et al 2015, pages 12 and 13) found that an equal home ownership rate would reduce the wealth gap between whites and blacks by 47% and for Latinos by 69%.
Overall, 73.6% of City of Ithaca housing is rentals, in contrast with the U.S. total of 36.1%. According to a 2015 report on housing from the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights, this high dependence on rental housing creates “a strong need for housing providers to be sufficiently aware of their fair housing responsibilities” (Baer and Douglas 2015, page 46). Ithaca has a large student population, and Cornell has generally added more students than it has provided housing for. This student-dominated rental market has resulted in discriminatory practices by some local housing providers who screen out families with children (and other protected groups) in favor of groups of single students for housing. (Baer and Douglas 2015, page 14). One such market condition outcome is that rentals in City of Ithaca housing costs “are greater than 30% of income for…69% of renters” (Baer and Douglas 2015, page 48). Thirty percent of income for rentals is considered the maximum for a livable and sustainable housing expenditure.
Ownership and Displacement
The historic black Southside neighborhood is succumbing to housing upgrades and rising home prices that were partly initiated and carried forth by renovations financed by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) . While INHS was not seeking to expel black families but to improve their conditions, as the quality of the houses, streets and yards increased, so did the value of the houses, and white families began moving in. One house that changed racial ownership was bought for about $5,000 in the early 1980s, sold for $85,000 in 1990 and is now assessed at $150,000. A house near the AME Zion church on Cleveland Avenue was sold to the city for $0 in 1998 then assessed at $67,500 and is now valued at $170,000. With vastly greater financial resources, white families are better positioned to purchase these homes and benefit from their substantial increase in value. Since black families are much more likely to be renting than owning their home in Ithaca, the increases in property value lead to increased rent payments instead of increased family wealth.
A number of different tactics have been used or considered by the local government to combat Ithaca’s housing market crisis or are being advocated for by local organizers for fair housing. We mention three of them below.
1. Public Housing Projects
Tompkins County currently has approximately 2,029 project-based housing units, representing about 5% of all units, of which 926 are in the City of Ithaca. In 2014 within these units, 20% of the renters were African American, more than 3 times the African-American percentage of the population. On the waiting lists for this housing – which variously run from 3 months to 3 years, 30% were African American. These numbers can be seen as indicators of one form of structural racism – substantially lower incomes and higher unemployment render African Americans less able to compete in the private housing market and more dependent on public housing, for which they are over-represented on the waiting lists.
With federal support for public housing currently declining, advocates consider our state government as a more likely funding source. Funding could be generated, for example, from raising the income tax rate on the wealthy or from savings created by passing and implementing a proposed single-payer state health system. Advocates further emphasize the need for affordable mixed-income public housing, so as not to reproduce the current segregation by race and class that keeps structural stereotypes and discrimination in place.
Another similar option would be to find funding for subsidies or tax breaks to developers for providing low-income housing. A variety of sources for building up an affordable housing fund for Ithaca and Tompkins County have been proposed.
2. Subsidies for privately-owned rental units – Section 8 Housing
Section 8 of the 1937 Housing Act, as amended several times, currently authorizes HUD to pay rental subsidies for certain approved housing units for rent costs above 30% of the renting household’s income.
Very low income households are the intended beneficiaries. Tompkins County in 2014 was allocated 1,839 “Housing Choice Vouchers” (HCVs) to apply to the Section 8 program (Baer and Douglas 2015, page 51). According to the T.C. Human Rights Office report, in fair housing tests where pairs of investigators go out to look for housing, Section 8 applicants were routinely rejected. Landlord rejections for Section 8 are legal, as being low income is not protected by any anti-discrimination laws (Baer and Douglas 2015, page 52). However, because of the overrepresentation of people of color in the lowest income groups, the effect is to reinforce racism even without violating current legal protections. It should also be noted that people with disabilities, female-headed households (of all races) and Latinos are also overrepresented in the pool of Section 8 applicants.
The Tompkins County Legislature is considering policy changes that would prevent landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on source of income, such as Section 8. Even if these changes were to pass, they still do not take into account structural racism. In addition, Section 8 housing is notoriously substandard, with anecdotal reports of unsanitary, unhealthy, unsafe, and neglected situations. A higher level of priority funding for regulation and oversight of low-income housing units would allow low-income individuals to live in dignity.
3. Inclusionary Zoning
Inclusionary Zoning requires that a significant % of new housing stock, usually 15-25% of either for-sale or for-rent housing, has to be in the moderate to low income range. The affordable housing components can be achieved with different options – building them into the project, building them at a nearby city-approved location, payment into a city-run affordable housing fund, or converting existing units into affordable housing. In exchange for building affordable housing units, developers may forego parking requirements, add one floor in certain neighborhoods, or be exempt from parts of site plan review.
The City of Ithaca passed an inclusionary zoning law in July of 2018, a positive step forward that could have been much stronger. The city now requires 20% of new housing units to be affordable housing in order for the developer to qualify for a tax abatement (for reference, Burlington has a 25% requirement). The definition of “affordable” is set to $1,106/month for a studio, and $1,421/month for a 2-bedroom apartment, which is hardly inclusive of low income residents. In addition, the affordable housing requirement for tax abatement is limited to the downtown, west end, and waterfront areas of the city, leaving out major sections of Southside and Northside and other neighborhoods.