Tuesday April 10, 2018

CNY Fair Housing Combats Societal Ills

Housing discrimination, segregation, concentrated poverty targeted issues
By Lou Sorendo

    Sally Santangelo

    CNY Fair Housing is celebrating its 50th anniversary in April.


    While much has been accomplished since President Lyndon B. Johnson inked the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968, the Syracuse-based agency faces a never-ending uphill battle to remedy some of society’s most significant challenges.


    CNY Fair Housing, a private nonprofit organization, works to eliminate housing discrimination, promote open communities and ensure equal access to housing opportunity for communities in Central and Northern New York.


    While the agency is celebrating its golden anniversary, the high volume of complaints fielded by the agency still makes it a viable resource.


    Sally Santangelo, executive director at CNY Fair Housing, said her office is receiving an inordinate amount of calls related to a myriad of issues, including sexual harassment.


    She said this has coincided with the #MeToo movement, a nationwide effort to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.


    “I think the movement is fueling the rise in calls to some extent,” she said. “With the national discussions, women are more empowered to come forward with their stories. I think it’s difficult to tell a story about something so personal, and it’s painful to have to retell these experiences. So I think as more women have been coming forward about these issues nationally, it is empowering women locally to use their voice to tell of their experiences.”


    “When you look at the breakdown in terms of the reasons or basis for the calls, disability is always the No. 1 fair housing complaint,” Santangelo said.


    She said at least 50 percent of calls involve issues concerning disability, and that has been the norm since the Syracuse office opened in 1991.


    This is both a local and national trend, she added.


    Race has historically been the No. 2 reason, while familial status — or families with children — has ranked third.


    Last year, however, the agency saw gender complaints vault into the No. 2 position. “We’ve never had gender complaints ranked so high,” she said.


    “Some complaints were related to discrimination against survivors of domestic violence,” she said.


    Largely spurring the rise in gender-based calls is a case involving Oswego businessman and landlord Douglas Waterbury, Santangelo said.


    CNY Fair Housing is a plaintiff in ongoing civil litigation involving alleged fair housing violations and sexual harassment against Waterbury.


    “We talked to 25 women who have had some experience related to Mr. Waterbury,” she noted.


    The case is pending in federal court. CNY Fair Housing filed the initial complaint last August with six women as well as the agency itself named in that complaint. Two additional women with allegations came forth last fall as well.


    The agency’s primary goal in this action is to make sure no women face sexual harassment when seeking housing, Santangelo said.


    “There is no place you should feel safer than in your own home,” she said. “Our primary goal is to make sure there are no women subjected to sexual harassment.


    “This went on, according to allegations, for a number of years. It created the impression that this it is OK. We need to work to counteract that assumption.”


    “We need to make sure we’re doing more education and outreach to educate not only individual tenants, but educate the community at large as well as service providers, elected officials and people working with tenants to make sure they understand not only that this is a violation of fair housing laws, but also that there are options for women to protect their civil rights in this area,” she added.


    A number of these women have suffered real harm, she noted. They’ve struggled to find other housing and they’ve endured homelessness, she noted.


    “There is, obviously, emotional harm in having gone through these things. There is a goal to make sure they feel whole again moving forward,” Santangelo said.


    CNY Fair Housing fields and investigates complaints of discrimination by individuals.


    “We can hear their stories and review evidence that they may have. We will do things like look through lease agreements, applications and communication between a tenant and housing provider,” Santangelo said.


    The agency works to verify that what complainants experienced was in fact discrimination.


    “We do undercover testing to provide independent third-party evidence to try to figure out exactly what did happen to an individual who feels they were discriminated against,” she added.


    CNY Fair Housing also does advocacy on behalf of tenants when it is warranted, and it usually is related to people with disabilities who are in need of accommodations to help them remain in their homes.


    The agency also has an attorney on staff that provides legal representation when needed.


    “We represent individuals in state and federal court. We also file complaints with the New York State Division of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development,” she said.


    Gender identity issue: It is illegal to discriminate against certain protected classes of people, Santangelo said.


    The federal government has not added protected classes since 1988, when disability and familial status were added.


    “There hasn’t been any additional protected classes since then,” Santangelo said.


    “It’s not surprising, but it is incredibly discouraging,” she said. “I think we should have protection for people based on sexual orientation, for example, at a national level.”


    “In New York state, we do have protections based on people’s sexual orientation. That was actually passed in the city of Syracuse, which was one of the first cities to pass sexual orientation protection legislation at a local level,” she noted.


    In 2002, New York state passed protections based on sexual orientation, “but still, New York state does not have explicit protections for people based on gender identity,” Santangelo said.


    The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act is a proposed New York law which adds gender identity and expression as a protected class in the state's human rights and hate crimes laws, prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas.


    However, the legislation has fallen flat since it was introduced in 2003.


    “To some extent, there are some protections for people based on gender in New York state,” she said.


    For example, if a person is gender nonconforming, then gender protection does exist in New York state and can protect people.


    There are also protections in federal housing for people based on gender identity, “but we don’t have those explicit protections,” she noted.


    Syracuse also passed protections last year based on source of income.


    “That means a housing provider can’t deny someone housing based on their legal source of income. If someone receives Section 8 or public assistance, a housing provider has to give him or her an opportunity to apply,” she noted.


    The federal fair housing act includes a provision that says programs administered by HUD have to be delivered in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing, Santangelo said.


    She noted the provision to affirmatively further fair housing has been in the fair housing act since it was passed in 1968, but it has largely gone unenforced.

    She said in 2015, HUD provided more clarification and guidance for communities that receive federal housing funding on what they need to do to affirmatively further fair housing.


    “That rule came out in early July of 2015 and now requires communities that accept funding from HUD to do more to proactively address patterns of segregation and inequality of opportunity for communities,” she said.


    A few years prior to the rule coming out, Westchester County was sued for failing to affirmatively further fair housing.



    Not only does Syracuse have a high level of segregation, but it also suffers from high levels of concentrated poverty.


    “Syracuse is the worst city in the country in terms of the percentage of both African-Americans and Latinos living in concentrated poverty,” said Santangelo, noting Rochester and Buffalo are not far behind.


    She noted there are steps that can be taken to address these issues, one being to ensure people have housing opportunities.


    “We have to make sure people are not being denied housing because of illegal discrimination, but we also must make sure there’s things like access to affordable housing,” she said.


    “One of the reasons why Syracuse has developed these stark patterns of segregation is because of limited affordable housing opportunities outside of the city. We have to make sure we have more options and are developing things like mixed income housing, where you have a mix of incomes all living in the same neighborhood. That can foster more economic, racial and ethnic diversity,” she said.


    Santangelo said the community must commit to improving the quality of housing, as well as the educational and economic opportunities within cities.


    She said the region continues to struggle with issues like lead poisoning in cities that disproportionately affects people of color.


    “It can lead to a lifetime of issues,” she said.


    Santangelo said low-income renters must continue to be aided.


    “As a country, we spend significantly more actually subsidizing middle class home ownership than we do in subsidizing affordable housing for low-income renters,” she added.


    For example, the mortgage interest deduction largely used by middle class homeowners is four times more the cost of all programs CNY Fair Housing has for low-income renters.


    “It’s vital to make sure the benefits that we provide as well as the mortgage interest deduction is a benefit to everyone. I’m a homeowner, and it causes me to pay less for my housing. We want to make sure those benefits are shared,” she said.


    The education piece: Besides the investigative component, CNY Fair Housing also specializes in education and outreach.


    “We train about 1,500 individuals a year on fair housing rights and responsibilities,” she said. “Sometimes training is geared toward individuals, service providers who are working with people who may face discrimination, and housing providers so they know best practices and have an understanding of the law,” she noted.


    CNY Fair Housing also does a significant amount of policy work, researching strategies that would help increase housing opportunities, she noted. Staff also conducts fair housing assessments.


    The agency took part in a public hearing in the city of Oswego late last year related to new changes to HUD’s housing choice voucher program.


    “We continue to look into those changes to try to understand what the effect of those changes will be and whether they are in compliance with fair housing laws,” she noted.


    Santangelo has been executive director of CNY Fair Housing for more than five years.


    “I love that I get to do so many different things. There are always new things to learn and I do love the opportunity to effect change,” she said.


    She said the gratifying aspects of her job involve keeping someone in their home, being able to help folks get into new housing, or breaking down some barriers that prevent people from achieving their housing goals.


    “I think that is probably the most satisfying part — the victories we have feel pretty good,” she said.


    Auction, fundraiser slated: CNY Fair Housing will feature its 7th annual Birdhouses for Fair Housing Auction & Fundraiser from 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesday at SKY Armory, 351 S. Clinton St., Syracuse.


    The event is being held on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968.


    Guests can place your bids on unique birdhouses made by local artists, community advocates, students, celebrities, and back yard enthusiasts.


    A live auction begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. A silent auction and reception runs throughout the event.


    All proceeds benefit CNY Fair Housing's efforts to eliminate housing discrimination and create neighborhoods of opportunity throughout Central and Northern New York.


    The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.


    Intended as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bill was the subject of a contentious debate in the Senate, but was passed quickly by the House of Representatives in the days after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.


    The Fair Housing Act stands as the final legislative achievement of the civil rights era.


Oswego County Business Magazine
Issue 160

Issue 160
February/March 2019

Cover Story


James Weatherup

On The Job

What Are Your Goals for 2019?

Success Stories

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My Turn

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Economic Trends

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Last Page

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