ITHACA, N.Y. — Legislature candidate David Shapiro, running for District 3, is prioritizing housing, childcare and source of income protection in his campaign.
Up until seven years ago, Shapiro spent his whole life in Brooklyn. Shapiro said he wanted to move to Ithaca after he visited with his wife for her five-year reunion at Cornell. He said he was tired of the overcrowded city, mess and rush. Shapiro lives in the Belle Sherman neighborhood of Ithaca with his wife and three sons and is the director of Family & Children’s Services.
Shapiro is facing Carolina Osorio Gil and Henry Granison in the primary Sept. 12.
Ithaca Voice Reporter Kelsey O’Connor spoke with Shapiro about why he wanted to run for Tompkins County Legislature and what issues he prioritizes, such as housing affordability, childcare, a living wage and source of income protection.
Why did you choose now that you wanted to be a Tompkins County Legislature?
That was the other kind of motivation to move to a small town, was that I’ve always wanted to get involved in politics. I just never wanted to do that in a big city. So when we moved to Ithaca, I very much had it in mind that I wanted to run for office at some point. I didn’t really know which office that was though.
Over the last several years, especially given the work I do at Family & Children’s, I really started realizing the skills that I have around financial management, around program development and also the way that I have been able to work in various committees, both in the agency and volunteering in the community. I really began to realize that the right role for me was thinking about county legislator.
About two years ago when I was watching the news. I saw Bernie Sanders make his announcement to run for candidacy, to run for presidency, and I was immediately inspired by his message of compassionate government that was taking care of everybody. I realized that that’s so aligned with the views that I had in terms of why I wanted to get into public office. It was ever since then that I started thinking, ‘What’s the right seat? When’s the right opportunity?’ And that opportunity became this year after spending some time with Carol Chock soon after the presidential election ended.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing Tompkins County currently? And what can Tompkins County legislators do to address those?
I think one of the biggest issues is that people can’t afford to live here. I was at a meeting with some of the leadership of Cornell and they passed on a statistic that 60 percent of their workforce commutes in to Tompkins County. And I just think that the Legislature has to play a more active role in helping people afford to live in Tompkins County.
So a lot of what the legislator has been focused on in response to that is thinking about affordable housing. That’s certainly an area that the legislature can make a difference on. But I think more broadly about what it means to have affordable living. So housing is just one area where if there’s more of it, people can afford to live here. But that still doesn’t change the fact that they might be spending way more than they can on childcare or their wages might be so depressed that even though they raise housing, that even at their depressed wages, they can’t afford to live there. So really, thinking about the whole spectrum of ‘What does it take to live in Ithaca, to afford to live in Ithaca, and what role government can have in making it more affordable?’
Any other issues?
What I’d like to see is the county have more of a role in making sure that childcare is affordable. Too many people of limited means aren’t able to put their kids in high-quality care. And I don’t think that’s fair that because you have means of supporting your family, now your kids have less opportunity of healthy development. So I’d really like to see the county play a role in helping childcare become more affordable.
An extension of that for me is I want to see Tompkins County offer universal pre-kindergarten. The Legislature has not played a big role in supporting our school system. I’m not suggesting I’ll have a magic wand to fix that, but I do think that it is the time to start putting that on our agenda and start working towards how can we make our school system universally open for all four year olds.
The other issue that’s really important to me, or one other issue that’s really important to me is thinking about living wages. The first budget decision I made at Family & Children’s was increasing all of the salaries that were below a living wage so they were now at the living wage criteria. We’ve since continued to increase that level. So this year we actually joined the ‘Fight for 15’ so there’s no one working at Family & Children’s that earns less than $15 an hour.
In terms of affordability and in terms of affordable housing one of the issues that I’ve become a lot more knowledgeable about recently is thinking about what does it mean that our county does not offer a source of income protection. So currently there are about 2,000 families in Ithaca that have a Section 8 voucher, but an overwhelming majority of them aren’t able to find the housing that they want because landlords are able to say if you have Section 8, you cannot apply. I think that’s discriminatory. I think it’s wrong. I think we need to. I think the legislature needs to change the law so that there is a source of income protection. It’s not precedent setting. New York City’s already done this. It’s just time for us to join that model.
Do you think any voices or communities are underrepresented on Tompkins County Legislature?
I think there are a lot of voices that are underrepresented.
I think our legislature is predominantly an older group that is more likely to be retired or working part-time, and I think what’s severely missing from that from that group is a stronger voice for working families. I think when we talk about what does it mean to be, to have a healthy community what does it mean to have affordable housing? Communities thrive when families can afford to raise their kids in communities.
For a community to thrive you need working you need families to be able to live in the community. When those voices aren’t represented on the Legislature, then it’s less likely that the policies that are initiated are going to be responsive to working family needs.
What do you think are some of the biggest issues for your constituents?
What a lot of families are looking for is more opportunities to get their kids a place where they can where they can develop effectively, where they can have a healthy development.
I think one of the things one of the choices that too many families are forced to make is that if you can’t afford to keep your kids in care and that means one of the that one of the one of the parents, assuming it’s a two-parent household. One of the parents is going to have to stay home with the kids and more often than not you’re talking about the mother.
So when I talk about wanting to wanting to make child care more affordable, it isn’t just that I want to make sure that all children have an equal opportunity and healthy development. This is also a huge issue related to pay equity and so many women who are forced to stay home to raise their kids. They are then not able to join the workforce at the same level that they left off before children. And then because of that throughout their careers they’re just constantly seeing their wages are depressed. And if you’re able to find ways of keeping kids in care in an affordable way, then all these mothers, and I hate to overgeneralize, but all of these all these parents who are predominantly mothers then have the opportunity to jump back into the workforce and pursue their career the way they wanted to.
Affordable housing has been a big topic of conversation in Tompkins County for a while. What do you think the biggest gaps in housing are in Tompkins County? Who is getting left behind? And how can Tompkins County Legislature make progress in the area of housing?
I think a whole lot are a lot of people are being left behind in the housing conversation. I can maybe talk about a few different demographics.
I think you have a lot of our aging population who might have really large houses somewhere outside of the city but that as they’re getting older they’re getting harder and harder to take care of. So I know that there are a lot of people aging in our community who would love to have an affordable place that they can live downtown where they didn’t have to worry about their yard, where they can think about walking to places and not always worrying about transportation. I think thats… a huge void in our housing market right now. Another void is young professionals. A lot of the housing that’s being built is simply just too expensive for people that only have one income. If you’re a single adult in this community and you only have that one income to support you, it is very challenging to find housing in our downtown area specifically where you can afford it.
And I think you know we talked a lot about this already, but one of the other big issues is working families. It is really, really challenging to have the means to be able to afford to purchase a home in Ithaca.
Property taxes are a huge part of that. But there’s still a big void that’s left for families looking to have a nice place for their family to live. That’s also not so far out of town that it takes them too long to drive to work.
What do you think you can do to help address some of these areas of housing?
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe strongly in having source of income protection. And if you allow people that have Section 8 vouchers to have an equal opportunity to interview for the available housing then some of our housing needs, some of our affordable housing need, all get fixed just just by creating source of income protection.
I think the other challenge is you have a lot of developers in town who are looking to create large development projects with a lot of density that can offer a lot of housing and there’s often a lot of debate in our community about whether it is we like the way those properties are being developed, how high they might be developed on the tax abatements that might be a part of those developments. And I think just what happens is right now there’s just a whole lot of debate about what type of housing and what type of development in our community takes place. And unfortunately that debate often comes at the expense of action. And there are quite a few people that are waiting for more housing to be developed in this town and I’d like to think that as a legislator, I’d have a hand in expediting some of these proposals and also ensuring that a lot of the proposals meet the requirements that we’re looking for in terms of affordability.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the jail study and incarceration. What did you think the biggest takeaways from the report were?
I think it’s great that the report came back and said we don’t need to expand the jail. I was certainly in the same boat that didn’t want to see more of our tax dollars getting invested in creating more ways to incarcerate people.
That said, I feel very much obligated to ensure that the people that currently are incarcerated are having the right types of services and the right type of living arrangements so that while they are incarcerated they’re at least being treated well. And I think some of what the discussion was around the jail study was wanting to make sure that the folks that are in the jail have reasonable accommodations.
One of the big takeaways I took out of it though is that the county is doing a fantastic job in reducing the number of people that are in the jail. I think we’ve made some great investments in alternatives to incarceration. I’d like to see a lot more investment made there.
I think one of the one of what I hope to bring to the Legislature is I have a strong background in terms of program development and in terms of developing cost-effective and high-quality programs. So I’m encouraged that the Legislature has pursued alternatives to incarceration, and I’d like to play a role in continuing to see that happen.
One of the other issues that’s important to me and it’s a little bit beyond the scope of what the Tompkins County Legislature’s responsible for. But one of the reasons that our jail is at times overcrowded has to do with the way bail is set and defined by the New York state level. So our current our current district attorney has done a great job at helping when he has the ability keeping bail at at a minimum. But what’s true is you still have a lot of people that are in our county jail that have not been convicted of anything. And in this country you’re innocent until proven guilty. And I’d like to make sure that the people in our jail are the folks that are committing these violent crimes that really we ought to worry about our safety for.
But if we’re worried but if the crime they’re committing are related to drug abuse are related to people living in poverty then I don’t think it’s fair that these folks are the ones that are rising up in jail.
Cargill in Lansing has been a big topic lately, with Barbara Lifton raising environmental concerns. What are your thoughts on Cargill generally? Do you think concerns about mining under the lake are well founded?
There’s really two sides to this conversation. You have folks that really depend on the income and the jobs that are created through Cargill and the thought is if they’re not able to expand their mines then there are approximately 200 jobs out there that might be at risk. What else is very important is thinking about the environment that environmental impact of what happens if we start mining under under the lake.
What I’d like to think that I can bring to the Legislature is I’ve done a lot of work in committees, both as a board member and as an advisory member and some of our some of our legislative committees, and I think the skill set that I’m able to bring to a lot of these committees is I don’t always go in I normally don’t go in there with a pre-determined opinion. What I’d like to do is sit back and listen and when I can find that there are people on different sides of the coin, but they have areas that do agree on.
I feel like my job is to pay attention to where people agree and try to bring us to consensus. So the overwhelming majority of people living in Tompkins County want to see us move in a direction that is greener, that is cleaner, that is less dependent on … these businesses have less impact on the environment. And there’s also the need to do to ensure that these jobs continue.
What I’ve recently been hearing, and I can’t speak to whether or not this is factual, but if the mine were to close, if we’re not able to continue to mine for salt, what’s the environmental impact of having to bus in or transport or salt into Tompkins County using using carbon gases. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think that’s an important part of the conversation.
Making a living wage the standard across Tompkins County has been a big topic of conversation lately. Do you think all businesses should be required to pay a living wage?
Being a living wage employer has been something that’s very important to me.
In every role that I’ve had as an administrator I have always worked at creating opportunities for advancement and creating opportunities for people to earn a higher level of wages. One of the things that I’m most proud about my work at Family & Children’s is that over the last six years I’ve worked there, average wages have gone up by 45 percent.
The overwhelming majority of that wage increase is coming from the entry-level positions working their way up. So the values that I bring to my job are that I am going to continue to work towards investing our resources in the wages of the people that start at the bottom and work their way up. So when I talk about the increase in wages that 45 percent over six years, my salary has probably gone up a fraction of that over those last four. Over those last six years and it isn’t because I don’t want to earn more money it’s because I don’t see it it’s because … it’s so critically important to me that the people that are working for me are able to live a high-quality life. And a lot of that is tied to wages. And when I feel like I’ve done enough work for them, I’ll worry about myself.
But to go back to your question about whether it’s a requirement or not I think what I’d like to see is more leaders in town seeing this as a priority, that you have to invest in the people that work for you and you have to start at the bottom. You have to work wages up from the bottom. And when the people at the bottom have seen enough and now they’re compressing the next layer up then you work on that next layer up. And that will always be the way that I consider how to improve wages.
Do you think the county should tell all businesses they have to pay a living wage? Do you think that’s good for the county or should it be up to individual businesses to come there?
I think two things on this. I believe that everyone should be earning at least $15 an hour and I would like to know that every organization in town is committed to getting us there. I’m also in the school of thought that government isn’t there to always force initiatives on people. And I like that. For instance, Tompkins County has for many, many years considered themselves a living wage employer but they have not put the resources into the community so that our community can be a living wage employer. So you have places, you have a lot of nonprofits in town who have some limited means due to how their funding is structured, and it would be very challenging for some of these organizations to offer a living wage if it was a requirement. Places like our childcare centers, places that provide direct care work.
You have a lot of folks making $10-$11, and if the organizations had to pay them for $15, $16 an hour, absent of subsidizing the increase in costs, what you’re doing is you’re passing on that cost to the people who use those programs.
So if we required IC3 to pay $15 an hour, and now because of that people who are enrolling their kids in that program now have to pay $200 more a month, I’m not in favor of that.
Am I in favor of thinking about the priorities that Tompkins County uses in prioritizing their fiscal resources? I am most certainly in favor of looking at our budget and thinking about how we can distribute our resources so that these important organizations in town have what it takes to offer a living wage. But to make that requirement without also prioritizing re-looking at how we’re spending the tax revenue we collect. I don’t think you can do one without the other.