ITHACA, N.Y. — A group of residents is staring down some of Ithaca’s most glaring issues, and has yet to blink.
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Bus To Nature: Route 22
Northside United is a community-organizing group comprised of residents living the Northside Triangle, a neighborhood enclosed by Cascadilla Street, Route 13 and the Cascadilla Creek. The group has sought to collectively address the issues that face their neighborhood while creating stronger community ties between residents of the area.
“If you have people who are connected to each other, you’re able to battle some of the challenges that are happening in the neighborhood,” said Irene Dixon, a member of the group’s steering committee.
‘There has not been as much voice’
Common among several members was the feeling that Northside, one of the least affluent neighborhoods in Ithaca, tends to get swept under the rug in comparison to other Ithaca neighborhoods.
“One issue that always comes up for me is that Northside, for some reason, gets sort of downtrodden,” said steering committee member Linda Holzbaur.
“Along Lake Avenue, people have moved in and landlords are telling them it’s Fall Creek […] there’s such a classist connotation to that because for some reason everyone looks down on Northside and Fall Creek is supposed to be so much better? It’s a nice neighborhood, but Northside’s a nice neighborhood too, so why don’t these people know that’s actually Northside?”
Tenzin Tsoyki, a steering committee member for Northside United, echoed the same sentiment, saying, “People always think, when they think about communities, ‘Oh Fall Creek! Fall Creek’s the best!’ or ‘Oh, Cayuga Heights!’”
Northside residents include a substantial refugee population, as well as cluster of low income housing, both public and private. For Holzbaur, these factors play a large role in the way the neighborhood has been able to voice its concerns to the rest of the city.
“I do think that the fact that we do have public housing and quite frankly a lot of poor people and people of color has just meant that there has not been as much voice,” she said.
Common Council member Seph Murtagh, of the second ward, agreed that the area had lacked a cohesive voice in the past. “They’ve never had a strong neighborhood association, and that’s unlike other neighborhoods,” he said.
Murtagh added, “If you look at all the different neighborhoods in the city, like Fall Creek for instance has a pretty strong neighborhood association […] this has been a really big change because they haven’t had a really strong voice.”
Holzbaur praised Murtagh for the attention he’s paid to the neighborhood, particularly since the inception of Northside United.
“We have some good people on Common Council,” she said, “Seph has been coming to all of our meetings, and is pretty involved in Northside so that’s been pretty good for us.”
Beginning of Northside United
Northside United got its start in December 2014, meeting in the Quaker Meeting House on Third Street, which opened its doors to the group when residents and worshipers began looking for a community resource.
“We wanted to offer the building as a resource in the neighborhood and we wanted to join what was going on,” said Karen Friedeborn, a member both of Northside United and the Meeting House.
Since December, the group has met once a month, having dinners and discussing the challenges that they face. Members have stressed solidarity as a key tenet of their mission.
“If not you’re just one person trying to save the world,” said Dixon, “but if you have all of these people it makes you so much more powerful.”
Housing Comes to the Forefront
The central issue for the group, which was highlighted by every steering committee member, is the affordability of housing in the area, particularly for those with relatively low incomes.
“It’s a big issue,” said Friedeborn, “We realize that a lot of people in town don’t really know how big a problem it is, that it’s not just about students trying to find housing. There are a lot of people in the meetings who work several jobs and still can’t afford their rents.”
Members cited a lack of public housing, as well as skepticism regarding the privately offered low-income housing.
“People really struggle to try to make their rents. There’s very little section 8 housing. There are a lot of people that qualify for it but there just isn’t much available,” Friedeborn said.
Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, a non-profit service of providing low-income housing, offers what it describes as affordable housing for many in the neighborhood; however, Dixon questioned how affordable the housing actually is.
Dixon did express appreciation for INHS, which has sent representatives to some of the monthly meetings the group has held, encouraging other residents with similar issues to attend their meetings.
“I came with questions and they explained a lot of their reasoning. I’m still learning but I feel like every meeting I come to I learn more and more. I feel like they’ve been helpful in those ways,” she explained.
That said, Friedeborn said, “There’s a population that they really can’t serve that well.”
Advocacy over INHS project
The issue has gained a lot of traction in recent months. Most recently, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson wrote an op-ed in which they described, “This crisis — a dire shortage of rental and for-sale housing at all price points — is getting worse every year.”
Housing affordability has also been covered by the Ithaca Voice and has been the topic of several Common Council meetings. Murtagh attributed this heightened awareness to actions taken by Northside United.
“They’ve done a pretty good job I think of shifting the conversation at City Hall and getting it to focus on affordable housing,” he said.
In particular, Murtagh cited a recent conflict over a proposed housing development in the Northside.
A plan has been proposed by INHS to build affordable housing in the site where the Neighborhood Pride grocery store used to stand, drawing resistance from other residents. Meanwhile, however, Northside United was able to get 30 people to show up to a city meeting to show support for the affordable housing project, according to Dixon.
The group has also considered the idea of fund for residents who have difficulty making their housing payments.
“We’ve had the idea for an emergency fund for rent or something,” Dixon said, “even someone who makes 50k a year, sometimes things get tight month to month, so as long as the funds are available you can apply for that.”
The fund would be modeled after a similar resource at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC).
Murtagh said that the city is working towards a solution to the housing problem.
He explained, “until now, our strategy for dealing with affordable housing has been working with INHS.[…] Is there a way that we can take our zoning laws and build into our zoning laws an incentive for private developers to build more affordable housing?”
In addition to the cost of housing, landlord-tenant relations have come to the forefront of the agenda for Northside United.
“One thing that’s come up,” Friedeborn said, “is a lot of people are having trouble with landlords. There’s no tenants rights group around here at all.”
For many renters in the Northside neighborhood, dealing with landlords can pose a particularly great challenge. Dixon described an experience of her own, which placed a financial burden on her and her family.
“My front door was blown over by a storm and it wasn’t closing. I didn’t put a whole in the wall; I didn’t intentionally break a window. I thought since I pay rent, you’d think that would cover some of the costs. They sent me a large bill and I thought ‘I’m already struggling, I’m already a part of the low income group, or so they call it,’” she said.
Dixon said that her housing provider is INHS, but that similar problems have occurred for others with private individual landlords.
“A lot of people are complaining that they’ve gotten large bills for having the maint people come out and fix something in there house,” she said.
Although Dixon was able to advocate for herself in her own situation, for many, she said, such personal advocacy is simply impossible.
Dixon explained, “We live in a very diverse community, and there are a lot of people who don’t speak very good English, so when these things happen to them they often don’t have a way to deal with it.”