WRFI Community Radio and The Ithaca Voice are bringing you conversations with candidates in the 4 contested Common Council primary races.
Celia Clarke and Matt Butler Editor-in-Chief of The Ithaca Voice conducted the interviews. The Ward Two candidates are Kris Haines Sharp, Aryeal Jackson, and West Fox.
The Ward includes Fall Creek and downtown.
Transcription thanks to the Ithaca Voice. Read more Second Ward Coverage at the Ithaca Voice.
Why do you think that the approach taken over the last five to 10 years has been ineffective at stopping rent climbs in Ithaca? Does it need more time, or does it need to change?
Aryeal Jackson (AJ): I think the most significant thing we need to look at when we see the trends in prices and availability of housing, both housing for students, housing for graduate and professional students, and even seniors, which we don’t see a lot of, single families and young families, right, I’m a renter, myself. Rents were going down, the quality and quantity was going up, it was very slow. Occupancy rates were going down, which is what you need for a healthy community of housing. When I first moved here, it was, Lordy, almost 99%, which is not sustainable, obviously. And that may be still how it feels. But we have gone down. Now we ran into COVID headfirst. Properties went through the roof, housing costs went through the roof. And it really has upended the work that we were doing. So yes, we did better. We were doing better. Not miraculous, not nearly as fast as many wanted. But we were making progress this year. At this point in the year, there should be like very few units available, as far as rentals. There are quite a few open, which tells us pretty much everything we need to know about availability. Yeah, I think that’s a good indicator.
Kris Haines-Sharp (KHS): So I think I actually think we don’t have enough rental properties on the market. I think that our vacancy rate is very low. I think that because of that, owners and landlords have more power than tenants do, and I think that we need to look at housing stock, we need to look at sources of revenue. If we’re in a city where 58% of our properties are tax-exempt, and 80% of those tax-exempt properties belong to Cornell. I think we have an opportunity to create a housing market that works for all.
West Fox (WF): I would say that our approach has been ineffective. I think Seph Murtagh said it best in a recent Ithaca Voice article, but we had this sense of a sort of trickle-down housing strategy, where we gave tax abatements and money to developers to develop these luxury homes, in the hopes that it will somehow trickle down to affordable housing. We’ve seen with time, in the past five to 10 years, that that didn’t work. And I think that we ought to flip how we’re approaching how to bring more housing to Ithaca, which is to look at those who are unhoused, and those who can’t afford the housing that’s available, and provide more housing for them, and then allow the market to grow and develop from there, instead of continuing to put developers nonprofit developers businesses really at the forefront of how we’re going to address what is now a housing crisis.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about how much Cornell pays the city of Ithaca because so much of its property is tax exempt. What would you like to see the financial relationship between the city and Cornell to look like?
WF: When we have a community our size, that is over 50% owned by Cornell, I think that all applicants at this point are really looking for a more symbiotic relationship, and it’s not going to be through taxes because it is tax-exempt. But I think that Cornell can look to sister institutions in New Haven, Providence and see how their fellow Ivy Leagues have contributed to the communities that they’re in and continue to contribute more. And I think that Cornell, ought to look at things like our housing crisis, things like our infrastructure crisis, and really want to contribute to Ithaca. Because Ithaca is as much Cornell as Cornell is Ithaca, in my opinion.
KHS: Cornell and Ithaca both gain from each other, and I think that Cornell has—so it’s 1.6 million that Cornell contributes to the city budget, and the vast majority of that is for fire service. I do acknowledge that Cornell provides a lot of the city-type or municipal services, they provide them on their grounds and in their area. I do think that we have people studying or working at Cornell who drive on our roads, who use public transportation, who park in downtown parking lots, who shop at stores in Ithac, who use services. I believe that there is an opportunity for Cornell to support Ithaca in ways that would be materially advantageous even to them. So fix the roads for student families coming into town, and make sure that their students are safe biking down Buffalo Street. I’m not saying that student was a Cornell student. My time is up, there’s a lot more to say, but I’ll stop.
AJ: I think this is one of the number one issues that I hear at doors from people, they are really concerned. It’s not just your age-old “Cornell needs to pay more,” it’s that this is a very pressing moment, like we almost have a golden opportunity here, much like we do with the city manager, to really set a new tone for the next decade. There’s actually been a community group that’s been formed to try to address this, almost parallel to what’s going on with the city. We need to be really creative, in talking to some city employees, they said there are ways to do it, because you can’t come head on with Cornell. It’s like a toddler, right? You can’t tell them to brush their teeth, you have to come up with creative ways to get them to do [it], we got to come in from the side, right? We tend to fashion ourselves after Burlington, Vermont, for some reason. The Commons, when we approved the dogs on the Commons thing as well. There had been initiatives there that are similar. So they asked the university for streets around the university that wasn’t necessarily their property to help with maintenance, help with infrastructure and repair. That was a way that the college could contribute, in a way that they could feel like they were righteous in saying, “Oh, look at how we help.” If we say we want your money, they’re gonna be like, “No, we don’t have it.” They’re gonna pretend. But if we say that there are ways you can help support and be a good neighbor, they are more apt, it has shown over history, that they are more apt to be participatory. And we need really strong creative solutions. The stormwater fee that came out years ago is a substantial part of our tax base now. And the group that the city has formed to negotiate this is not as strong as, maybe, a lot of community members would like.
Do you like the Reimagining Public Safety plan? Why or why not? And what do you think the Ithaca Police Department should look like in, say, three years?
KHS: I think the Reimagining Public Safety plan has excellent components. And it’s at the planning stage, so implementation still hasn’t happened. I think that means that there’s still an opportunity for substantial community involvement and investment. I think that before all of that happens around reimagining it really needs to focus on, we need to focus on rebuilding trust between IPD and the city and its residents. Part two, how do I think IPD should look in three years—diverse, well taken care of, in terms of I think we have officers who need support. I think we need a civilian component to the reimagining plan where the deputy chief of staff who will be hired will be civilian oversight of IPD and emergency services. I think that is going to be an excellent opportunity for us to work with IPD and city residents to have a city that works for all of us.
WF: I got to Ithaca in 2020 and heard of the reimagining public safety campaign and was blown away, honestly. I came from Los Angeles and I came straight from Compton and learning about the Compton cafeteria riots. I worked to implement a civilian oversight board for the Los Angeles men’s county jail. And so I was really entrenched in trying to get more civilian input into a jail that is known for its atrocities. And so I got to Ithaca, saw Reimagining Public Safety, I was like, that’s really cool. As time has gone on, I’ve seen that not much has moved forward, and honestly, the thing that worries me the most is that there have been a number of committees and talks where folks have gotten input from Black leaders and community members who are most affected by the police, and that I haven’t seen their input in the plan. And that worries me. So moving forward, we have those records, so I’d like that input to be included in what we’re doing with reimagining public safety. […] As for what I would like to see the police department look like in three years, my number one is demilitarized. I would like to see fewer ARs. I would like to see more cops on bikes. And I would like to see more community liaisons.
AJ: I think what we still have really is only still a rough framework. I know there’s a, quote unquote, plan out there, there’s been, you know, a lot of committees. I think that it was a really beautiful thing to have community members come out and share their stories. It was an act of vulnerability and trust in the fact that the people in power really wanted to hear what they had to say and were really valuing them. I think that we have, once again, not honored that. Like West said, there’s not a lot of input right now in the actual application, and that’s because the trust was gone. Once you formed 10 committees, 10 commissions, it becomes an issue of “Was there an ethics violation? Who ran it?” And all of that stuff. The legislators, the people in power—[the plan] does not anymore represent the people who came forward who were the point. What do I want [IPD] to look like? I would like to see a reimagining of policing culture, right? More than anything else, it is the culture of policing that across the country has led to extensive issues, to death, to beatings, to everything. That has nothing to do with diversity, you could have a fully diverse staff, and it would, once you’re behind that thin blue line, it means very little, right, because policing is policing. So we need to make sure that they have mental health services, that they have access to the community, that people are not afraid to walk into a situation where change is happening, because change is messy. So people who are open for change, they are staying, and not going people who want to be hired are coming in because they’re not afraid of change.
What is the most important quality that a City Manager should possess? What should the dynamic between the city manager and Common Council be?
AJ: Well, the Committee of the Whole, they’re just starting to look at this. I would encourage everybody to look at the wealth of information that Deb Mohlenhoff put forth, if you go on the city website, there’s a folder. Please look through it. It’s important to have context. What qualities do we need to have? They’re still looking at the job description, which is a bit of a bone of contention that we still don’t have one. We need follow through and application, we need a healthy relationship between staff, we need to not be afraid to enlist staff to dig into initiatives and to actually apply them. We need to hear from staff what’s possible and what’s not. And also know that we, we need to be creative in our solutions. We need detail orientation, we need background information on almost everything that we come at. Right? The relationship is being hashed out. It’s going to be a delicate balance, I’m sure that we will make adjustments as we go. There are issues that we’re talking about that I could go into that I, you know, have concerns about, but yeah, it’s up in the air. But I want to see a relationship that allows legislative and policy driven situations to go forward so that there’s not disagreement. I want us to work in tandem, we should all be working together. And the legislative area should have more authority, more—I want to say more chutzpah, more establishment and an equal footing.
WF: Okay, most important qualities for a city manager. I think that, like a lot of aspects of Ithaca, we’re seeing change, we’re seeing growth. That’s why we’re moving from the mayor leading Common Council and not having a vote to having a city manager, and I think for that to happen, we need someone who is going to be able to hear all 10 Common Councillors’ sides, our concerns, the concerns that we’re going to be bringing forward from our residents, and still have respect for everyone who’s speaking, have respect for the problems that we’re bringing forward. We’re seeing, and I hope to see a lot more, diversity on Common Council. And that’s going to be diversity of opinion, that’s going to be diversity of ideas, diversity of where we think money should go, and the city manager is really going to need to know how to facilitate that. Past that, I think it’s kind of exciting that we will be moving forward in a way where the mayor has voting power, and the person that Ithacans are going to be electing for mayor is also going to be a part of this legislative body. I see, in this past year, some of the contention that has risen between the public workers, staff and our Common Councillors. And I hope that the city manager is able to ameliorate that, and also give dignity to those who deserve it.
KHS: To piggyback on both what Aryeal and West are saying, I think that the chief quality I would like to see in a city manager is being an effective communicator, which means the ability to listen to both staff and constituents and council, be reflective, to be transparent in communicating what’s happening in City Hall. That gets to the question about the relationship between the city manager and Common Council. I would like to see transparency. And I would like to be able to access information through the city manager and have that relationship really be open and trusting so that we know how to move forward best for this for the good of the city.
The Seneca Street parking garage is facing similar issues as the Green Street parking garage was about 4-5 years ago. What is the best future use of that site?
WF: I used to work for Ithaca Carshare, and through my work with Ithaca Carshare, I also did work with the transportation equity assessment. And it’s interesting, when talking about parking garages, talking about space in the city, talking about lack of housing, talking about access and a need for transportation—Carshare had an incredibly difficult time getting any of the garages to agree to allowing to put one of our cars there, even though it was a community need and something that supported the residents there and would have benefited the garages, in our opinion. I don’t own a car. I’m originally from New York City, I’ve never owned a car. So when it comes to things like parking garages, I get a little miffed that the city has so many that seem to not be working for its residents. I would like folks who are owning those parking garages and the decisions to make them to really consider the residents that are around, the workers who help run Ithaca who are coming from outside of the city because they can’t afford to live here, and make sure that we’re considered over just the business needs and what’s most profitable.
KHS: I want to say first of all, thank you to the city departments who are staying on top of the safety of the Seneca Street garage. That’s the fire department and the city engineers. We just saw what, a month ago, what happened in a parking garage in New York City that collapsed. Our parking garage is in need of safety measures. I would like to see a transportation hub, and I would like to see greater infrastructure for all types of public transportation, so a robust TCAT system, I would like to see a bicycling hub in that area. I think I agree with West, Carshare could use a home if we can get the bill passed in our state to keep carshare alive. Please make your phone calls.
AJ: When they ask the question, all I could think of was the study that was done years ago about how many parking spots were available in the two garages and who had, like the hotels have spaces, the developments have spaces and they had looked and there was still a substantial amount of empty spaces. And I know people who come from outside of the city who say “Oh, parking is too difficult” and I politely roll my eyes and encourage them to come downtown because parking fees contribute to our bottom line and you can still shop, so economically that’s important. I was actually spitballing this with my partner this morning about parking garages because I hate them. They’re just concrete and lonely, and for a woman, it’s just not a good place to ever park. So, we were talking about how they’re engineering possibilities for vertical gardens on the outside, for a community garden on the top, and we were just literally spitballing, but it would be a beautiful application. We need to focus on what the community wants. Where’s their needs? I mean, a bus hub, a bus station, something already, that’s been an issue for years and years and years. Bikes are a great idea, Carshare’s a fantastic idea. What are the needs of the immediate community surrounding what are the needs for economic influx from people coming outside the city coming in? Being there’s no requirement in the city core for developers to provide parking. They do pay for some spots. Yeah, but this is going to be a complicated question that’s going to come down to lots of conversation, but community input I think needs to be the focus.
Do you think Ithaca has become a dangerous place? Is the rather frequent business turnover and vacancies on the Commons a symptom of that, or is it because of separate economic factors? It’s a chicken or egg question.
KHS: Chicken and egg questions are always complicated, because who really knows, chicken or egg? I would say business vacancies on the Commons, I’m guessing there are a number of reasons for that. One would be rents, which makes it complicated, makes it very hard for a small business owner to make it in the city, and especially in prime real estate. And we need a vibrant downtown hub to keep our money and our sales tax in the community and in the city. But it can’t be easy to be a small business. You put your life savings into your work, you face a repair or two, and the challenges are there for you. Safety was the other question, crime in the city. I think there’s a perception that crime is raised, I’m not sure that that’s true. I can’t speak to whether that’s true without looking at the dashboard. or talking to—We don’t know, the details on whether crime is growing or not. We know the perception is that it is and perhaps in some respect […] I think we don’t know whether crime is actually growing in the city, or whether there is a perception that it is growing.
AJ: Completely different. If you look at the turnovers on the Commons, you saw a substantial amount happening during the Commons renovations. It was incredibly expensive, foot traffic was reduced. There was a lot of financial initiatives that were there to help uplift businesses, but it took forever and at the end of the day, there were a lot of casualties. Again, we had a pandemic, right, it was like we couldn’t pay our mortgage for a couple of years, and now we’re still trying to scrape our way out. So we need to not lose track of that, when we talk about housing, we talk about crime, all that stuff. Like, if people can’t feed their families, it’s—they are crimes of desperation, right, we have a lot of drug use, and crimes of desperation. And the substantial crime that we see that people are afraid of, that I do not think has gone up, is a small segment of people who are involved in drugs, who tend to think that a gun is a reasonable way to solve a conflict. In the past year or so a lot of that particular group have been taken off the streets. When we see homicides, they have been personal in nature, they have not been random at all. So no, I don’t think crime is rising at a substantial level. Certainly not any more or less than the rest of the country. The perception is that yes, it’s going up. The reality is that no, it is not. So I think we need to keep that in context and perpetuating the idea that crime is going up, makes people more apt to close their doors and lock stuff and say no to social programs, and to stop being open to change.
WF: Well, it’s hard for me to answer if Ithaca has become dangerous, since I’m relatively new to the city. So I’ll answer do I think Ithaca is dangerous? And I have lived in some of the most dangerous parts of this country. I grew up in the South Bronx where I was often beat up for being queer. I lived in Camden, New Jersey, which fought with Detroit for the murder capital of the US. I came to Ithaca from Compton, which is Compton. And I came to Ithaca because it was a safe haven. And because I knew that I would be able to care for myself without being concerned for my safety. So in my opinion, Ithaca is not dangerous. When it comes to perceived crime, I think that one, like Aryeal said, we’ve been through a pandemic, and when we have folks who are under-resourced, they will do what they need to to provide for themselves and their loved ones. We had a murder recently of someone who was housed, was evicted, and not three days later, not only committed a crime of violence, but was murdered himself. And I think that we can prevent crime, when we give people dignity and when we give people support and when we house folks. When it comes to businesses, I look to things like Press Bay Alley, which has a community in which they’re making sure that the folks who are owning are diverse.
Could you speak to an issue that your ward’s residents specifically face, as opposed to the more citywide matter we’ve been talking about?
WF: Wow, knocking on doors, I think two of the major things that I have been hearing have been about the affordability of housing, whether that’s for the unhoused, for renters, for homeowners, and safety. And when I hear things about safety is often about the visibility of folks who use drugs, and the effects of those folks being in public spaces. I had a neighbor talk about how they’re near Washington Park, and they have children, and they often find used needles in their yard. When I hear things like that, it really drives home to me the importance, one, of getting folks housed, right, getting folks access to be able to do what we all enjoy in the privacy of our own homes, no matter what that is, and giving no normative values for that. But the importance of harm reduction, because with harm reductive principles and policies, we have things like syringe drops, where, whether or not you like whether people are using drugs, because they are whether or not you like it, there’s places for people to put paraphernalia, so that we’re not actually worrying about kids stepping on needles. And so when we think of things like not just criminalizing the use of drugs, because we put those people in jail and other people are just going to continue to use drugs, and the problem is still going to be faced. Harm reductive tendencies allow us to actually address the issue both for the residents and for the folks we’re worried about.
KHS: So I don’t disagree with anything West said, I hear those concerns as well. But I do think what I hear, our residents want their very basic needs met. So we know housing’s a basic need, but they also want to be able to walk down the sidewalk without tripping. Or to be able to use a wheelchair and get from point A to point B, to drive down roads or bike down roads that aren’t so full of potholes that they worry about their safety. I also hear basic infrastructure, what makes our lives in Ithaca, livable and walkable and bicycle-able. I don’t think that’s a word. And I also hear from a lot of people, their concerns about the FEMA flood maps and the impacts that that’s going to have on people’s financial ability to stay in Ithaca. And the flood maps are not just impacting Ward 2, they’re impacting Ward one. I mean, all the wards are going to deal with it in some ways, but we have a lot of residents in our ward, that will face serious financial hardship, in navigating the FEMA flood maps, and the impacts on their insurance rates, and we need to help those folks in that regard.
AJ: What I’m hearing from residents is really kind of beautiful. I always start by asking them why they love living here. It kind of takes the sting away from, you know, “I hate this, I hate that.” Because I’ve been going kind of on walking tours, so to speak, asking “What do you care about, I want to take notes” or something, hit the ground running. And they all say they love the sense of community, I often find them walking dogs or talking to their neighbors. They really love that, and that’s why they don’t want to go. They obviously talk about the cost of living, they talk about taxes, but nine times out of 10 in the exact same breath, they say we want to make sure the Green New Deal happens, we want to make sure Reimagining happens in a responsible way. Because while they are burdened, and while they struggle, they still are perfectly fine paying for stuff like the Green New Deal. What they’re not seeing is action items, they don’t know how much they’re going to spend. And that’s a huge concern for them is “Where’s the plan? Where’s the action? I have no problem helping, supporting, doing all the initiatives around it, if I have an idea of what’s going to happen.” The Washington Park thing is a good example, a woman was speaking to me and she said “I see a gentleman there very often, he doesn’t bother anybody. But I want to help him. I don’t want to give him money directly. Can you point me to a list of organizations that can give me a way to get my money directly to that person as possible, and to help them as as quickly as possible?” And that’s really beautiful. Right? We have a very diverse area now. Our ward has changed substantially.
AJ: People have asked me, obviously, why [I’m] running? And that is such a complicated question to answer. I’ve worked on campaigns for years. And I give them talking points, and I see them grumble at me, and now I truly understand how frustrating that is. Because you don’t know where to start, right? Especially in my case, where I’ve been following local politics for a decade. There’s so much, but we need to make progress. We tend to be a city that passes philosophies, right, with zero action items. We need an order of operations, we need to know where the money’s going, where it’s coming from, how we can work with other partners to get this stuff rolling. And then we have to price tax. Like I said earlier, it’s not that the community doesn’t want to pay for these things. It’s that it wants to know how we’re going to pay for them, and how we’re going to work that into the budget in a responsible way. Cornell is one of the top things you hear at doors as well, they want more participation. So how we do that, how we affirm with them how we are creative, and our solutions really need to happen, right? Because they want them to pay the appropriate amount to help be a good neighbor. So we need to finish a lot of initiatives that we started, the Green New Deal, Reimagining. People always push for affordable housing, what does housing really look like? That’s a whole conversation, right? Our Ward, specifically the new second ward, is substantially different than what the Fifth Ward was, where we had from the high school to about Marshall Street. And up, we now have Washington Park all the way up to Green Street. And it is the largest [number of] registered Democrats in all the wards. So we need to take a comprehensive approach, we really need to listen in a way that we haven’t before. We need to represent everybody from business owners, to low-income people to those who have been homeowners for years and years.
KHS: Thank you for having us here today. It’s clear to me that we each want what’s best for our city, its residents and its workers. Thanks, Aryeal and thanks, West. We’ve presented our visions, our plans and highlighted some of the values that will guide our decisions. We may disagree on certain points, but we’ve shown a commitment to the common good. These are challenging times and I believe the way forward is through unity, not division and not polarization. To overcome the many obstacles we as individuals and as a community face, we need to recognize our shared aspirations for our neighbors and our city and acknowledge that we have a collective responsibility to work for the good of all. It is my firm belief that the process we are engaged in here should be a force for progress, a means to uplift the lives of others. The political process, debates, campaigning, they’re not about personal gain or party allegiance. They’re about serving the people who have placed their trust in us. As your Alderperson, I will advocate for justice and be a voice for those who have been marginalized. I know words can’t solve all the challenges we face, they must be met with action with tangible policies that address the needs of our community and foster an environment of inclusivity. I am committed to the uncomfortable process of change and reflection to work for the good of all residents and city workers. Change begins with us. I believe firmly that empathy and understanding and listening and reflecting builds bridges instead of walls, and cooperation instead of conflict. Democracy thrives when we embrace diversity of perspectives. It is possible to learn from those we don’t agree with.
WF: I want to thank you for having us here, and thank Aryeal and thank Kris. I want to speak a little bit to why I believe I’m qualified for the position. Because I am relatively young to Ithaca, and I’m relatively young myself, and I think it’s important for folks to hear from me why I think I’m right for the position. I believe that I have a unique combination of both academic, professional and lived experience that is not often found in local politics, or politics in general. I’ve had a particular academic experience in which I studied government, and political philosophy. I’ve had professional experience in the nonprofit sphere in the social services sector. I’ve had specific training in both management and facilitation, grant writing organizations, organizational management, and I’ve had professional experience in education, in social services, in transportation. I’m a renter, I have worked since I was 15. I feel like I understand the needs of applicants from West Hill to Fall Creek. I also just wanted to speak a bit to why I decided to run, and that’s because I believe that there are benchmarks that have often kept Black people, low income people, folks who deserve representation from feeling like they would be respected and heard and seen for their experiences. And I again, have that unique combination where I both have the lived experience of being unhoused, both when I was younger, with my single mother, and as an adult, and the pedigree to allow me to really bring forth to council, both the experience and professionalism and the lived experience to voice for the marginalized folks.
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