ITHACA N.Y. — Even as affordable housing projects in the City of Ithaca continue to be built, and human services agencies do their best to provide assistance, many are still left looking for a place to live. 

Whether that means applying for temporary housing assistance (THA) or finalizing a lease for a rental, those looking to get off the streets or into a more stable environment are up against a lot in the City. Applicants must navigate high-cost rentals, varying forms of discrimination and an outright lack of available (and affordable) units. The search for affordable housing remains a winding endeavor for those experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness—a seemingly “open secret” in Ithaca. 

Barriers to housing access

Curtiss Robinson is a 42-year-old who has been experiencing homelessness for several months. He recently migrated to Ithaca from Delaware and has been trying to find a place since. 

Robinson has a type of housing voucher, through the Emergency Solutions Grant, though not the better-known Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. He collects disability as a result of musculoskeletal issues, which prevent him from working labor-intensive jobs. Robinson is in recovery from drug addiction, and although he struggles with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, he has been following through with his outpatient treatment plan through REACH Medical. 

Curtiss Robinson in the OAR office sharing his binder with housing provider contact lists, medical documentation and personal information (James Baratta/the Ithaca Voice)

“It’s been brick wall after brick wall after brick wall,” Robinson said. “I started looking for somewhere to go to because I’m not used to doing the homeless thing.”

According to Haley Romero, housing coordinator at Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR), Robinson calls at least five housing providers each week and shares his progress with the Department of Social Services (DSS). Robinson frequently refers to housing lists to contact landlords—one of these lists is from DSS. 

“Out of that whole list, one or two places had openings but they don’t accept social services and they don’t accept Section 8,” he said. “I’m like, what are we supposed to do?” 

At least several Section 8 recipients have found themselves in this predicament; for them, housing in Ithaca is either not available or not affordable. This is despite New York State’s recently enacted Lawful Income Non-discrimination Act of 2019, which prohibits landlords from discriminating “against renters in making housing decisions based on their use of a voucher or a rental subsidy.” The lists that DSS and other social service agencies provide are meant to help to streamline the housing search for unhoused people, and the agencies themselves are not at fault for the lack of available housing. Yet, the discrimination that Robinson mentioned persists.

According to Kevin Bambury, an attorney specializing in housing discrimination for LawNY—a non-profit law firm providing free legal assistance across Western New York—there are a number of places in Ithaca that do not accept Section 8 and other forms of lawful income. 

“The way we see it is there’s a lot of denial, an outright denial, of people with Section 8 vouchers,” he said. “There’s a denial [of people] with benefits, Social Security benefits or public assistance, and a lot of times there’s monetary […] requirements that landlords came up with to keep Section 8 individuals out of their apartments.”

Those monetary requirements may look like requesting one’s credit score. Lawful income includes child support, alimony, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, foster care, public assistance and housing assistance at the federal, state and local levels. 

Bambury has three active cases against housing providers in Tompkins County. Two of these providers are suspected of violating the Lawful Income Non-discrimination Act of 2019. LawNY® engages in an array of public service projects like the Fair Housing Enforcement Project. Bambury and others are involved in the Project investigating and working to mitigate housing discrimination through legal action. 

“I think it’s a fairly serious issue,” Bambury said. “It’s all over the state, and specifically in Western New York, it’s (happening) in every major city, every town.”

According to the New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR), housing discrimination is an issue statewide. Since the passage of the Act, DHR has received 169 complaints of source of income discrimination from across the state, which is 19 percent of the overall housing complaints during that time period—15 of which have already resulted in settlements with over $50,000 in monetary benefits to complainants. DHR released guidance on source of income discrimination to make it clear to housing providers how the law applies to them and that housing discrimination will not be tolerated. 

The Lawful Income Non-Discrimination Act of 2019 is fairly new. And while there are some independent landlords who have refused to modify their rental practices, others lack an understanding of the Act and what it means for their housing decisions. 

“Part of the issue is in getting landlords educated,” Bambury said. “If somebody’s just becoming a landlord, they’re not necessarily gonna know this right away […] so there’s kind of a push to get landlords educated on this so they won’t do that.” 

A rundown of Section 8 

In Tompkins County, there are two agencies that issue HCVs — Ithaca Housing Authority (IHA) and Tompkins Community Action (TCAction). They run their programs separately and are not affiliated with one another. As of May 1, 2021, both agencies have a Leasing Percentage of 98 percent. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Section 8 recipients in the County have used their vouchers this year. 

“Even though these numbers change monthly, my team has really done an amazing job,” IHA Section 8 Coordinator Megan Wiiki said. “[We] worked hard to lease up well above our average.” 

There are approximately 1,000 people receiving subsidies through the IHA voucher program; TCAction has 1,120 people enrolled in the HCV program. Although HCVs expire after 60 days, Section 8 providers have been known to grant extensions to those who need them. Vouchers also can’t be used for rooming houses, which are temporary living spaces available through rapid rehousing programs. 

Agencies like IHA and TCAction prioritize vulnerable groups including homeless youth, families with children in foster care, homeless families, individuals experiencing homelessness due to COVID-19 and people fleeing domestic violence. To do so they utilize the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) — a local information technology system managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — to collect housing and services data. In essence, HMIS helps determine where applicants end up on housing waitlists. Danielle Harrington, director of energy services at TCAction, denoted the role of HMIS in connecting people with affordable housing. 

“It’s the gateway to other supportive housing programs,” Harrington said. “You’re going to have one conversation with somebody rather than apply to 11 different programs, and then the program is going to reach out to you when there’s an opening.”

HMIS involves what is known as a Coordinated Entry System, which is a tool that categorizes applicants by their vulnerability score. This rating determines where someone will land on housing waitlists. Harrington said that, pending other eligibility criteria, an applicant’s vulnerability index could mean the difference between a 6-month and a 3-year wait. It can take anywhere from 24 to 36 months for an individual to receive a voucher after applying for one. According to TCAction, all vouchers issued by the HCV program are to be used in Tompkins County for the first 12 months of receiving housing assistance. However, Section 8 recipients have had difficulty accessing some affordable housing complexes due to waitlists that may exceed this 12-month period. Through TCAction, there are currently 515 vouchers being utilized in the City of Ithaca to date—46 percent of the total vouchers issued by the agency’s program. 

“The newly issued voucher holders do find it challenging to utilize the voucher assistance due to a low vacancy rate in the county,” TCAction Housing Program Director Tonia Landon told The Ithaca Voice via email. “Many of the larger complexes (…) have waitlists of upwards of 1-2 years. As a result, many find it easiest to remain in the same apartment they had before receiving housing assistance.”

A low vacancy rate means there are no units available to lease, so more families and individuals find themselves housing insecure,” she continued. “It also makes the available units much more competitive and pushes rent prices up.” 

Moreover, the purpose of the work carried out by agencies like IHA and TCAction is to maximize state and federal dollars they recieve — in turn helping more people in addition to the thousands who are already assisted in Tompkins County. 

“Our goal at Ithaca Housing Authority is to help as many extremely low-income individuals and families as possible with the funding that is provided,” Wiiki said. “Our Agency and the Section 8 team (have) been working hard to reach out to applicants weekly, to help find units (and) fill out applications (…) so they can successfully find a unit to lease up and receive subsidy.”

Although this seemingly streamlined system has proven to be effective, there are some unhoused people who still struggle to access dignified housing — some waiting as long as three years before moving into a living space. 

Affordable ≠ Accessible

This year, Gov. Cuomo doubled funding for the Homeless Housing and Assistance Program (HHAP) within the FY 2021 Executive Budget. The program, which creates more housing for individuals and families who are homeless and unable to secure adequate housing without assistance, now has a budget of $128 million. 

Affordability, though, depends on location as well as the overall income of a specific neighborhood — this is known as area median income, or AMI. Liddy Bargar, coordinator of housing initiatives at the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County (HSC), explained that Ithaca’s AMI is “pretty high.” In Ithaca the area median income is $34,424 — well above the poverty line, which for a single person is an income less than $13,000 and even for a family of five is still less than the AMI in Ithaca. 

“People hear ‘affordable housing’ and they think ‘low-cost housing,’ but in a community where the AMI is actually pretty high it doesn’t necessarily translate,” she said, making the problem more acute in Ithaca. 

The lack of decent, affordable housing in the City has caused some homeless and housing insecure people to relocate to outlying areas like Groton and Lansing. As a result, they have struggled to find employment opportunities and are increasingly reliant on public transportation. 

Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) has been adapting to the City’s affordability problem. For more than 40 years, the agency has prioritized long-term community investment in an effort to circumvent Ithaca’s high AMI. Of the rentals listed on their website, all accept Section 8 HCVs, and the majority of the units in INHS’s portfolio utilize these vouchers. Although INHS is not part of the HMIS system, it sets aside high-quality rentals for community members who are either at risk of or are currently experiencing homelessness. Strategic Communications Manager Justina Fetterly said that INHS fills these units by referrals from other agencies working with unhoused people. 

“INHS is expanding affordable housing opportunities with future community development projects which include Cayuga Flats (2021) and Founders’ Way,” Fetterly told The Ithaca Voice in an email. “Affordable housing providers circumvent Ithaca’s AMI by utilizing housing solutions that ensure low-to moderate-income households pay only 30 percent of their income on housing.” 

In an evaluation of affordable housing units, The Ithaca Times reported that units “closer to the 80 percent AMI range are usually affordable for those in the working/middle class, while units closer to the 30 percent range are meant to be affordable for lower-income residents.” Projects being built across the city billed as “affordable” can oftentimes simply meet the 80 percent threshold, excluding many in need of actual affordability. Hence, the agency’s aforementioned goal of developing housing solutions. 

Location is another key factor that influences affordability. Looking at analysis tools like the Housing and Transportation index by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and previous reporting again by The Ithaca Times, transportation costs factor in significantly to how much money it actually takes to live somewhere. 

“We’ve seen our extremely low-income families are being pushed out of the City to rural locations where they are unable to access program providers, work and find safe childcare due to lack of reliable transportation,” Tonia Landon of TCAction said.

38-year-old Russell Murphy has been experiencing housing insecurity since 2000 and moved to Ithaca in March 2021 before relocating to Groton in April. He has been working as a custodian downtown and uses Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) to get to work. Groton residents are typically car-dependent and have very limited access to public transportation and jobs. Murphy said that he struggled to find housing in the City. 

“They say they full, they say that they don’t got no room, they saying all kinds of stuff,” he said. “So I [ended] up moving away to Groton because that’s the only spot I can find at the moment.”

“Some of them don’t accept the voucher,” Murphy added. “Some of them want cash up front.” 

Mr. Robinson had a similar experience. 

Haley Romero (left) informs Curtiss Robinson (right) review the status of his SNAP benefits (James Baratta/the Ithaca Voice)

“No one ever looks at the struggles that we go through when we are making these phone calls,” he said. “If it was more affordable and [there were] more places that […] accept social services/Section 8, it would be a lot easier on us.”

Murphy, Robinson and others are up against a lucrative college-rental market in their search for housing, as some independent landlords prefer to rent to college students because it’s more profitable to do so. 

“We’re just behind the curve”

Rentals in Ithaca are in need of long-term, cost-effective investments that expand affordable housing projects and reduce HMIS waitlists. Chris Teitelbaum is the program supervisor of St. John’s Community Services (SJCS), which operates Ithaca’s homeless shelter. He alluded to structural factors in the City’s economy that favor high-yield individuals. 

“We have a very functional […] industry that keeps people afloat but is not well-designed at getting people to thrive, mainly because of the limitations in moving folks into the overall economy,” Teitelbaum said. 

“We’re just behind the curve,” he continued. “To have the same conversation […] year after year after year after year […] just means that, for some reason, perhaps unconsciously, we’ve made a collective agreement not to solve this problem when this problem is entirely solvable. I think on a societal level we’ve accepted an outdated norm.” 

Teitelbaum identified the need for more permanent solutions to homelessness and housing insecurity like incentivizing the County to gradually reduce the number of individuals using emergency shelter, especially seasonal programs like Code Blue

WRFI Community Radio reported that the County’s budget for Code Blue saw a 300 percent increase between 2015 and 2019, jumping from $69,300 to $1.3 million. As crucial as the Code Blue budget is in ensuring the safety of homeless and housing insecure people during the winter, the annual increases in funding seem to be putting a band-aid on Ithaca’s affordability problem. 

Liddy Bargar of HSC said that it was disheartening to see so many people in emergency shelter because their basic needs are only temporarily being met. She explained that it would be more cost-effective to invest in long-term solutions that sufficiently address homelessness and housing insecurity. 

“It costs about $100 a night to serve somebody in emergency shelter,” Bargar said. “[After] 30 nights, they could be living in City Centre—that’s $3,000 a month.” 

Agencies use federal, state, county and local funding to facilitate emergency shelter. It should be noted that none of these resources have led to an overspending on the county’s homeless population. Rather, this indicates an underspending on constructive solutions to homelessness and housing insecurity. 

“I value the work of my partner agencies and work diligently to foster collaboration and communication across agency lines,” Bargar said. “One of my primary goals is to break down silos to better serve people experiencing homelessness.” 

Kevin Bambury echoed the need for cost-effective housing solutions. 

“Homelessness for everybody is way more expensive (than) keeping people in apartments,” he said. 

Community members like Teitelbaum have called on the County and City to make additional long-term investments so that the demand for housing can be met. However, the availability of affordable housing largely depends on “state and federal tax incentives to finance the projects,” local reporting suggests. This has led many developers to compete with one another for tax credits

Just last month, the state awarded funding to Park Grove Realty to develop the Carpenter Park project—a hybrid complex offering 42 units of affordable housing. At this time, it remains unclear how many other affordable housing developers will see state and federal funding in the coming months.

Although he has not yet been able to find housing, Curtiss Robinson has continued to search for a place to live. He explained that acquiring a suitable rental is crucial to his recovery because it is often more challenging to avoid exposure to drug-use in rooming houses and on the streets. Robinson said that, moving forward, he will do his best to stay hopeful and maintain his personal faith in God. 

“I know that eventually something will give,” Robinson said. “All I can do is smile (…) and push on with what I gotta do.” 

For more information on the Lawful Non-Discrimination Act of 2019, please see the guidance and FAQ made available by DHR. 
If you believe that you have been discriminated against by a housing provider with regard to your lawful source of income, you can file a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights. A complaint must be filed with the Division within one year of the alleged discriminatory act. For more information on filing a complaint visit the Division’s website at https://dhr.ny.gov, or call the Division’s toll-free HOTLINE at (844) 862-8703.

James Baratta

James Baratta is an intern at the Ithaca Voice. Connect with him on Twitter @_barattata