This opinion piece was written by Karen Baer, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights. It was NOT written by The Ithaca Voice. … click here to submit community announcements directly to The Voice, or contact us at tips@ithacavoice.com. 

For some time now, the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights (OHR) has been operating under a bringing human rights home framework for the purposes of inspiring its staff and guiding its outreach and enforcement programming decisions. In theory, the vision associated with bringing human rights home is to integrate broader social justice themes into local law, public policy discussions, service programs, and institutional decision-making. Why? — in the hope of enhancing government effectiveness in responding to local human rights needs.

I gladly share with you one of OHR’s bringing human rights home initiatives. Premised, in part, on the ideal expressed in Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing,” OHR drafted and proposed a ‘source of income’ anti-discrimination law which would no longer make it lawful for housing providers to outright reject applicants and tenants solely because they rely on public subsidies to pay their rent (e.g., Section 8).  Interesting idea, right?

While we know that most people support the idea of human rights and equality; where things get sticky is when we start to talk about the reality of human rights and equality. And the reality is that (1) Tompkins County residents who rely on programs like Section 8 are disproportionately people of color, female heads of household, and persons with disabilities; and (2) in a recent survey of Tompkins County housing providers, over 60 percent (n=91) responded that they refuse to rent to persons using Section 8 vouchers. To be clear, there are many other social injustices that could be impacted with the passage of a ‘source of income’ law — including economic inequality, homelessness, segregation, and other barriers to fair housing choice.

And historically, the proposition of bringing human rights home was once deemed to be a winning one in Tompkins County. For example, in the last century (1991) the County was a forerunner in promulgating its own local law protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation — nearly a decade before New York State decided to do so. And during this same period of time, Tompkins County enjoyed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the NYS Division of Human Rights (SDHR) allowing OHR to process local discrimination complaints on their behalf.  In this and many other respects, it was an era when Tompkins County proudly played a leadership role in developing bold human rights strategies that actually had a significant impact on a population at risk of discrimination.

Unfortunately, by 2008 the County had allowed the MOU with the SDHR to expire, an act that to this day severely limits OHR’s authority to process discrimination complaints arising in Tompkins County. And for some time now, a good number of municipalities in the state and around the nation have been routinely outpacing Tompkins County when it comes to protecting their own citizens from discrimination (e.g., passing local laws like ban-the-box, source of income, living wage, anti-hate crime, etc.).

To be frank, OHR has struggled to get support for its bringing human rights home initiatives from County officials. At every turn, we have been met with strong resistance — taking place, for the most part, behind closed doors. To follow are comments actually made by people in positions of power in Tompkins County when asked about their support for OHR’s enforcement strategies or ‘source of income’ discrimination law proposal. The comments were either offered in a public meeting, in front of one or more witnesses, or otherwise independently documented.

  • I want the minutes to reflect that OHR does not have the authority to negotiate an MOU with the SDHR
  • OHR shouldn’t be out there talking about this law
  • The system isn’t broken, so we don’t need to fix it
  • I don’t feel comfortable with the human rights commission people being involved
  • Too much power for too few people
  • It’s just a power grab for OHR
  • I haven’t heard any of my colleagues (on the Legislature) say it’s a good idea
  • Seems futile since discrimination is so difficult to prove
  • Landlords will only find other ways to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders
  • Stupid idea, I can already name five landlords who will be furious with you because they hate renting to those people
  • (Absolute silence/No response)

(And probably the most revealing remark of all)

  • Okay, I’ll tell you how things are done here. There’s one person in charge and ninety percent of what gets done is done by (that person). It doesn’t matter what (others) say or think. My guess is that as long as (that person) is here, you’re not going to get that (local law or other opportunities).  It’s personal.

So, are we interested in getting our human rights groove back? And by “we” I mean those who are willing to work for systemic changes that benefit our most vulnerable populations. By “we” I mean those who want to see Tompkins County again play a truly authentic leadership role in human rights promotion and protection. By “we” I mean those who want meaningful social justice impacts, not merely grand gestures by way of written resolution or proclamation. And now more than ever, we need to think ‘local’ when it comes to protecting the human rights of our citizens, because nary a news cycle goes by where some long- established federal human rights protection isn’t targeted for extinction.

Please know, that for the duration, OHR pledges to continue to fight for meaningful human rights strategies for the people in Tompkins County, regardless of the consequences. We hope others will join us in getting Tompkins County’s human rights groove back and making it a sanctuary for human rights seekers everywhere.

Stay woke,

Karen W. Baer

Director of Human Rights

Tompkins County Office of Human Rights