Stock image of Ithaca's City Hall

ITHACA, N.Y. — A county agency has issued a sharply critical report that identifies widespread housing discrimination in the city of Ithaca, rising rates of local homelessness and routinely preferential treatment of students over families in the renting process.

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The Tompkins County Office of Human Rights found nine “direct impediments” within the city to equal housing opportunities, including exclusionary tactics against the disabled and inadequate services for homeless families.

“In 2015, the number of sheltered persons with severe mental health issues increased significantly,” the report found. “There was an increase in the number of homeless children, largely reflecting an increase in the number of homeless families.”

The study’s authors also found widespread housing discrimination in Ithaca, particularly related to access for the disabled.

“Over 19 percent of fair housing tests returned a showing of ‘evidence’ of discrimination, including some very direct examples of fair housing violations,” the report states.

“Fair housing testing found nearly 50 percent of disability-related tests as having ‘evidence’ of discrimination, including outright rejection of applicants with service animals.”

Stock image of Ithaca’s City Hall

The study is set to be discussed tonight at City Hall by a committee of Ithaca’s Common Council. It was commissioned by city staff as a requirement for receiving funding from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.

The city of Ithaca has submitted a formal, point-by-point response to the study. City of Ithaca staff say they agree with some of the study’s findings, but that other parts of it are misleading or wrong.

“We were somewhat alarmed when we first got the report … but so much of it is either misconstrued or not quite accurate,” said JoAnn Cornish, the city’s director of planning and economic development.

Still, the city says in its formal response that “the report will be invaluable to the City in planning new ways of improving that housing landscape for all of our residents.”

Ithaca’s full response to the study’s finding — as well as its “action plan” for rectifying the identified problems — will be discussed fully in a follow-up story to be posted later in the Ithaca Voice this week.

Below are the primary findings of the county agency about housing discrimination in Ithaca.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Affordable housing crisis in Ithaca.”

Report finds housing discrimination in Ithaca

The county agency identified housing discrimination in Ithaca that goes beyond cost and into other obstacles faced by potential tenants:

1 — People with disabilities

A survey found that 61 percent of respondents reported higher levels of discrimination for people with disabilities; between 2005 and 2014, 43 percent of housing complaints in Tompkins County were based on disability, according to the report.

“People with disabilities are a protected class under fair housing law,” the report says. “To the extent that they cannot enjoy fair housing choices equal to those other residents of similar income levels, a fair housing barrier is created.”

2 — Doing more for those who have “Limited English”

4.3 percent of Tompkins residents speak English “less than very well,” according to the report. Those residents “may be underserved by the city of Ithaca,” the report found.

The report suggests Ithaca should “conduct a public awareness campaign,” among other measures to make those who aren’t proficient in English more aware of their eligibility for translation assistance.

3 — Grant recipients don’t know fair housing obligations

Additionally, the recipients of federal funding through the city don’t fully know their obligations to fair housing practices, according to the report.

The failure of housing agencies that get federal money “creates barriers for all protected classes,” the report finds.

4 — “Exclusionary tactics” against those with private and public subsidies

One portion of the report urges the city to alter its code to give law enforcement to crack down on discrimination complaints.

This section is about discrimination against those “who rely on public and private subsidies” in the city of Ithaca” — such as those who rely on housing vouchers.

5 — Lack of knowledge for “protected classes”

90 percent of responders to a survey found that landlords are perceived to be “leading perpetrators” of housing discrimination, including “rejecting and steering families with children and refusal to consider applicants with service animals.”

6 — Construction practices 

The report also notes that there’s high risk to housing developers “as they navigate to meet the demands of local regulations.”

That makes housing development cumbersome and restrictive, the report says.

7 — Effective legal mechanism to enforce residents’ rights

The report says the city should look into new legal mechanisms to enforce “fair housing rights.”

8 — Lack of emergency shelters

There’s a lack of emergency shelters and “transitional housing services,” especially for the homeless and families and children with disabilities, according to the report.

9 — Student-dominated market hurts others

Families applying for housing units with children “were repeatedly told by rental agents the unit they were inquiring about was only about to students,” according to the study.

That’s despite the fact that discriminating based on familial status is illegal — a violation of federal and state law, according to the report.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.