Editor’s Note: This is a guest editorial submitted by David Shapiro, District 3 candidate for Tompkins County Legislature. It was not written by the Ithaca Voice. Submit guest columns to tips@ithacavoice.com.

Affordable housing in Tompkins County is an issue that is constantly being debated and discussed in the County Legislature. Much of the focus of these conversations is directed at building developers. These developers are often able, through the county’s tax abatement program, to negotiate lower taxes in exchange for adding affordable units into their projects. But the tax abatement process can often take several years before projects gain approval. In the meantime, our most vulnerable community members continue to struggle to find suitable and affordable housing.

David Shapiro. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
David Shapiro. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Much of my campaign has been centered around the idea that our legislature needs to play a role in helping people afford to live in Tompkins County. Currently, the health and human services committee of the county legislature is sitting on one piece of legislation that could help more than 2,000 people in Tompkins County have greater access to affordable housing. The legislation, also known as source of income protection, if passed, would protect renters from being discriminated against solely due to the source of their rental payments.

Today in Tompkins County, landlords and property managers can reject tenants solely because they rely on government assistance or housing vouchers to afford rent or security deposits. In fact, housing providers can stop people from even applying for housing just because they have a Section 8 voucher, DSS assistance, a Catholic Charities type of subsidy, or other federal and state subsidies.

While source of income discrimination is lawful in Tompkins County, studies show that the practice overwhelmingly impacts people of color, female heads of households, and persons with disabilities. The Tompkins County Office of Human Rights has been asking the county legislature to support its proposed local source of income law, but have yet to garner the support they need to have this proposal brought to the legislature for a vote.

If such protections became law, that would mean a person could not be denied housing based solely on the type of income used to make rental payments, so long as the rent is being paid with a form of legal tender. Tenants still must be otherwise qualified for the housing, and housing providers may still screen out unsuitable tenants for non-discriminatory reasons (e.g., poor credit and rental histories, not enough income, current drug use, etc.). Under the law proposed by the Office of Human Rights, housing providers would be required to consider public subsidies in determining whether tenants can meet their rental obligations.

Municipalities protecting citizens from source of income discrimination is not without precedent. Communities across the state already enjoy source of income protection, including Buffalo, Syracuse, and New York City. Despite such precedent, and the frequent debate about how to create more affordable housing, our community dialogue focuses on property development as the only solution. It is time we took a multifaceted approach to creating more affordability.

If we all care about creating more affordable housing, then we should also care that there is currently a practice in place that excludes our most vulnerable from negotiating for it. I believe it is time for Tompkins County to make a change, and will advocate for the passing of such a law if elected into the legislature.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.