ELECTION FEATURE: Ithaca Common Council Ward 5 Candidate Jason Houghton

WRFI Community Radio and The Ithaca Voice are bringing you conversations with candidates in the contested Ithaca Common Council races and the mayoral race.

Tonight Matt Butler interviews Ward 5 candidate Jason Houghton. Houghton is running on the Ithacans for Progress ballot line. His opponent is Clyde Lederman, running on the Democratic Party and Working Families party ballot lines. We invited Lederman to participate in this interview. He declined our invitations.

The Ward includes Cornell Heights and parts of East Hill.

Houghton got 90 seconds to answer each question and two minutes for closing remarks.

MATT BUTLER: What are the issues at the forefront of your voters that you've been hearing, you know, whether you're campaigning knocking on doors, that sort of thing, what matters to the people in your ward?


JASON HOUGHTON: So yeah, I've been knocking on doors since April, and met a lot of people throughout the Fifth Ward, which is really been the best part about this whole campaign. And definitely the top issue facing everyone, renters, homeowners, and across the income spectrum is affordability. 

I think it's becoming very apparent to anybody who lives in Ithaca, that it's becoming more and more expensive to live here. Our rents have increased dramatically. Our property taxes are extremely high and continuing to rise with increasing assessments. So, you know, affordability is definitely the key issue. And really one of the primary reasons I decided to run for council to help address that issue.


MB: Between numbers, statistics and anecdotes, local crime seems pretty confusing currently. Do you believe Ethica has gotten more dangerous in the last five years? Or have the issues just become more visible? And is there a cause for this that you think is the most significant? And what's the solution to the crime in downtown Ithaca?


JH: Yeah, so, you know, there's a lot of disagreement about this, obviously, I will just say, personally, my perception is that crime is up. You know, I've been a resident of Ithaca for 17 years. And I've tried to remain very informed over those 17 years. And, you know, whether it's, it's greater coverage, or in fact, an increase in crime, it does seem that at least with some more violent crimes involving knives and guns. I've seen those headlines more in the past few years. So that's, that's concerning to me. 

And the reasons for that, I think, are many it is because not unique in this uptick in crime or at least perceived uptick in crime. It's happening everywhere. But I also think that people here are concerned about it, because we have a diminished police department at the moment. We've had in the history of Ithaca, upwards of 80 policemen in the department, we're down now down into the upper 30s. So I think there's a large concern that our police department is overextended. And, you know, unable to address the increase in crime due to factors related to COVID. So, yeah, my perception is that there is an increase in crime. I'm hoping that by increasing staffing in the police department, we can address it better. 


MB: The Memorandum of Understanding with Cornell has been, you know, settled, and I think everyone has had their piece to say about that. But a large portion of the new money coming to the city is going towards the Department of Public Works for infrastructure work, sort of that mutually benefits Cornell in the city. What would you like to see happen with that money? With the thought in mind that it does have to go to something near Cornell particularly, I think it would influence some of your ward at least.


JH: Yeah. So obviously, the Fifth Ward encompasses a large portion of Cornell's campus. So, yeah, 20% of the funding provided to the city from Cornell is earmarked for infrastructure needs adjacent to Cornell. 

You know, I have mixed feelings about that. Obviously, you know, any money that the city is getting from Cornell is of benefit to the city and frees up funds, you know, that's 20%, that might have to go, that we can use for infrastructure in that area of the city, that will free up money for other areas of the city. 

You know, I, I would like to see the rest of us who pay taxes, we don't get to, we are not tax exempt. But we also don't get to put strings on to the money that we provide the city. So I would like to see Cornell just contribute money and allow the city to allocate it as it sees best. But nonetheless, you know, infrastructure needs are city-wide. The fact that 20% of that funding is can be allocated to areas around Cornell, you know, I think the city can then that will free up funds for for other areas of the city for other infrastructure and other parts of the city. So I'm not opposed to that.


MB: The downtown Ithaca design plan is slated to be presented in the next few months. Every neighborhoods gotten their their own design plan. What do you think is the most important development necessity downtown? And if it is housing? How would you approach that differently than what has been the approach over the last decade?


JH: So yeah, I think it's because in need of housing of all types. What I really feel has been neglected and what I would like to see downtown and frankly, throughout the city, is more options for owner-occupied housing. We've had a lot of apartment buildings go up and it's essentially turned into student rental housing. Which is great in some ways, you know, it frees up other areas of the market. But we, we were really lacking I feel if it can the entire Ithaca area, options for people who want to own especially in the middle segment of the market. We, Ithaca, has done a fairly decent job in building some affordable housing. And essentially, outside of Ithaca, most of the development is very high-end housing. You know, that starts at $800,000 on one-acre lots. I'd really like to see Ithaca and the surrounding communities work together to build some more middle-income owner-occupied housing. And I think that would also, could also be something a target for the downtown community was an owner-occupied condominiums or townhouses.

MB: The City of Ithaca recently announced that they have their final two, they're the two finalists for the permanent Chief of Police position. What have you thought of the process to this point of choosing the police chief, which is taken about six months now? And what are the qualities you hope to see in the two candidates John Poway and Thomas Kelly?


JH: Yeah, so I just found out yesterday that there were two finalists, and that there is an opportunity to meet those finalists coming up in another two days [NOTE: on Thursday, Nov. 2] . Frankly, I wish there had been a little more advanced notice, I think it's difficult for people to plan an evening to meet these candidates with just a few a couple days notice. So, you know, that's one aspect of the search that I wish had been improved a bit. 

But yeah, I think anyone who has been familiar with the history of this would see that it has not, it has been a flawed process. It hasn't gone as anyone I think, would have designed. I think we've been without a police chief for over two years now. So clearly, we are in desperate need of police chief, so we've got direction. 

You know, I would like to see in the police chief, somebody who can implement Reimagining Public Safety. I've said in the past, I think the end product for Reimagining Public Safety is something I support – the call for unarmed responders, and for more involvement of the police department in, in nonprofits and other community organizations to really integrate them in community I really support that. I think the process around that really kind of sent some negative signals to our police department and depleted staffing there. 

So I'm hoping that with the new police chief, we get someone who embraces Reimagining Public Safety and can implement those values.


MB: And seem on that same topic on the topic of unarmed responders unit. That seems to finally be moving forward, particularly if we're on the verge of having a permanent police chief. Finally, what do you think are the structural needs for a unit like that to succeed? And how do you think we should measure success of that unit in the next, say, handful of years?


JH: So, you know, I'll be honest, this isn't some, this is a difficult topic. I think. My understanding is the challenge with unarmed responders is really defining what are the circumstances in which unarmed responders should should be on the front line? And when are the instances when we need armed police involved? Figuring out that balance is what's going to be the challenge initially, I think with with implementing unarmed responders, so I think we need to in in reading the Reimagine Public Safety report, they address that issue. 

I think the city and council are going to really need to support that process. Provide the resources necessary for those who triage issues to understand is this an instance where we're going to have for unarmed responders or armed police and help support whatever policies are needed to define when armed responders call in police and really define that. I find that's going to be the challenge. And I would hope that the city really prioritizes supporting that effort.


MB: What is your opinion of local government officials spending time talking about or weighing in on or making resolutions about international issues that, you know, their impact on would be indirect at best?


JH: So this is also one reason that I decided to run for council, I really want to bring a focus to Ithaca issues. I think to have a resolution, you know, taking a position on an international issue, I'm not opposed to that. I don't think it should consume Council time, or city time, I think the council and the city's primary focus obviously should be issues and the issues over which they are given legal governance. 

So while I think it's important for Council to make statements that reflect the values of the community, you know, recently they were making a statement about Ithaca being a transgender safe haven, I think statements about that are appropriate as long as they don't consume Council time, Council meetings. 

I'm not opposed to statements about that, that just the priority needs to be Ithaca issues, Ithaca infrastructure, you know, the issues over which the city has legal governance. 


MB: We saw last week, some of the tension, I guess, that surrounded the discussion of funding the Southside Community Center, it's really a larger conversation about how the city interacts with its nonprofit organizations that it supports financially. What do you think the extent of that support should be or what kind of oversight or regulations on that support should there be?


JH: So, frankly, this is an issue about which I'm trying to get more educated, I think the Southside provides some great services to youth in our community. So, you know, my understanding is that they get about a $200,000 annual funding, and some of that is, you know, for pre-school breakfasts, you know, which is obviously a great program and something the city should support, in my opinion. 

However, I think the city needs to be very cautious on funding nonprofits. If they're non-profit is providing a service that is a service that the city would otherwise be obligated to provide. I would have no problem with the funding the non service, provide that specific service to the community. If it's a service that the city is not obligated to provide, I think there needs to be real caution about how we spend those taxpayer monies. We're all, we all live under a very high tax burden in Ithaca, we need to be very prudent about how we spend taxpayer money. And I don't think it's appropriate for the city to essentially take taxpayer money for certain charities or nonprofits.


MB: On the topic of homelessness, local homelessness, I'm actually not sure – you could just give a brief answer here. Are there homelessness issues in the Fifth Ward? Is it, it seems like it would be sort of out of the scope of where we typically think the homelessness issue is most visible?


JH: It is essentially, I am unaware, and I've walked the Fourth Ward a lot. I'm unaware of any encampments in the Fourth Ward, or more like, you know, permanent long term presence of unsheltered individuals in the Fifth Ward. I think that, you know, everyone in the Fifth Ward is, is very aware of if because homeless issues and, you know, we all traveled throughout Ithaca, it's not a big city. So everyone here, everyone in the Fifth Ward is very aware of it. 

I live on a street that's actually gets a lot of pedestrian traffic. So, you know, I see, I see people who, you know, I believe maybe unsheltered or you know, are struggling, frankly. So, while they may not be overnighting, in the Fifth Ward, their presence is there. And I think everyone is aware of it, because issues with the unsheltered.


MB: And it seems like one of the consistent problems with that conversation is that once you start talking about homelessness, it very quickly sometimes devolves into your sort of dehumanizing the population that is experiencing all this. Do you think that the plan that the city is moving forward with on on sanction unsafe or unsanctioned encampments? Do you think that it does enough to humanize people? And if not, what else would you like to see in that plan to do so?


JH: So I'll start by saying I while I was in law school, I volunteered with an organization that helped homeless people get engaged with a workfare program that was established by the city of San Francisco. They, San Francisco, provided many services. One of them was this workfare program and I would help homeless people get into that program.

And what that taught me is, everyone is an individual. The reason people are homeless is everyone has their own story behind that. And the solution, I think, for everyone is, is unique. So it's very difficult to come up, for the city to have a policy that's going to address and help every individual homeless person to the best of its ability to the best of their ability. It's it's a challenging problem, if there were a simple solution, we would have found it already and a municipality somewhere would have implemented it. 

So I think in Ithaca, we've kind of had a policy of do nothing hands off, and that hasn't worked. The Jungle has become a very unsafe place for the people in the Jungle. And I think the new policy by trying to provide a safe space and provide some services is a great step forward. We aren't you know, if it doesn't work, we aren't bound by that at least it's it's an action. It's an attempt to improve the situation which obviously needs improvement. 

Most importantly, for those people who are homeless, I don't think they're getting the services. Now, the jungles become very unsafe, the city needs to address it.


MB: On that same topic to dp one more question about about the local homeless population. It does seem like the city's hands off approach you were talking about where it's also hands off to not only enforcement, but also like care and outreach to those people. Do you think this plan does enough to, meet these people where they are without abandoning them.


JH: I think whether it does enough is remain remains to be seen. It is a first step, and I think it's an appropriate first step. The laissez-faire approach, as I said, really, really hasn't worked, well, I don't think for the community or for the homeless. I would, I'm definitely a proponent of shelter first, which many in the community who are opposed to the current plan, feel that it doesn't address shelter first, as a priority. 

But I'll tell you in my work with the homeless, there are many people for whom many homeless that I've worked with in the past. They're just not, they don't want to be sheltered. You know, the confinements or the rules around living in a shelter are just are something that are a challenge for them. So, you know, as I said before, solutions are going to be individual. The city can't create an individual solution for each homeless person, the city can create a general policy. And I think this general policy is a good first step to providing services.


MB: The city's labor situation has turned around significantly since all the turmoil last year during the budget process. That has come as a result of a year of seemingly very positive contract negotiations that have reached contracts with all the unions. How going forward. How does the city balance the need to have workers who are competitively compensated as well as controlling spending and just you know, the sheer dollars and cents of it?


JH: Yeah, so housing affordability and city department staffing were again, the two primary reasons I decided to run for Council. And I will say I'm very pleased with the trends lately. Regarding department staffing, I'm in support of the new contracts that were signed. So I think that's a positive move forward, where I think the city missed an opportunity. 

Related to this was in the MOU with Cornell, Cornell is providing some additional funding to the city, which is beneficial, it is certainly a better agreement than was before. But I think the city had an opportunity to say here are the costs for us to fully staff, our departments. We are burdening our residents and renters in the community with very high taxes to fund understaffed departments. If Cornell were to contribute, what many of its peers are contributing to their home communities, we could bridge that gap between underfunded departments and fully funded departments without further burdening our our existing taxpayers. And the city just didn't go through with an assessment of that, you know, those numbers really were not made public. And that approach wasn't taken in the Cornell negotiations. So I think that was a missed opportunity. 

So the other thing I would do to try, I would try to maybe go back to Cornell with some those kinds of numbers. The other thing I would try to do is work– [NOTE: time ran out] MB: Actually can feel free to finish that in the closing statement. Okay, so in the next several months, I think the city is going to have a new mayor, their director of HR Shelley, Michelle Nunn, has announced she's leaving. And I believe comptroller Stephen Dyer said he's leaving, there'll be a new police chief. We got a new city clerk in the last year. What do you make of that kind of, you know, institutional memory leaving the city. And what does it say to you? Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing? Neutral or something else?


JH: I think it represents a challenge. As you said, there's a lot of institutional knowledge there. So I think the city is going to have to work very hard to replace those individuals with quality candidates quality individual bulls who can come in and be be productive Day One. I think it also does represent an opportunity for the city. 

You know, a lot of things have changed coming out of COVID. The city is facing new challenges, the city is facing challenges that I don't think the city alone can face, where we have to work more closely with surrounding municipalities. So I think it does also represent an opportunity to implement some, some changes that are going to be necessary to address climate change, you know, 21st century issues. And I also think it's very important that we have members of Council that are part of that hiring process and oversight, that are taking a very long-term view to the health of the city and have a real, understand the history of the city have a commitment to this city and are making decisions for the long term health of the city.


MB: Do we want to do closing statements? Let's go then, yeah, just two minutes. Take it away.


JH: So I've decided to run for Council back in April, because I want to address the two main issues facing the city. Affordability and lack of staffing in our city departments and diminished city services. So one way I hope to approach affordability is addressing zoning laws allowing for Accessory Dwelling Units within the city. And also working with surrounding municipalities to come up with development plans for, to increase our housing stock across the price spectrum. We've had a lot of large-scale apartment buildings in the city recently, a lot of them become student-occupied, we need to start increasing housing for single-family owner-occupied units, whether that be condominiums, townhouses, or single-family homes, we just don't see that kind of development much in the key area, and there's just a desperate need for it. And the need for it is driving up housing costs. 

I also, you know, would like to address the tax burden. You know, I've, I was hoping for a better new MOU with Cornell. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. But I don't want to give up that effort. I would like to see the city determine what would be necessary to fully fund its departments. You know, maybe renegotiate that Memorandum of Understanding with Cornell and, and support legislative efforts to obligate Cornell to provide a payment to the city, whether that be taxing profit-making centers on campus or some other means. 

So I also want to say that, you know, other things I would like to implement as part of the, as part of my campaign are a student advisory board. The Fifth Ward has a lot of students. I'd like to see Cornell students more plugged into city government, both with a voice via an advisory council for off-campus issues, and also greater coordination between the city and Cornell on research issues, water management, municipal, sharing municipal services, Cornell students could provide great energy and insight in those in those fields.