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Sally Santangelo on the Campbell Conversations

Tom Fazzio
Syracuse University
Sally Santangelo

The city of Syracuse has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation. How does housing discrimination and segregation factor into that? This week on the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with Sally Santangelo, Executive Director of CNY Fair Housing. They discuss the many facets of housing discrimination in Syracuse and across central New York.

Interview highlights

Reeher: Let me start by asking you to give us a brief overview of the nature of your organization and its mission and its practices. Just tell us what you folks do and why.

Santangelo: We investigate housing discrimination. We do a lot of education and outreach to teach people about fair housing rights as well as teach housing providers about what their free housing responsibilities are. We conduct research and policy work to try to help promote open communities, help build more inclusive neighborhoods and give people more access to housing choices. And we also have an attorney on staff who provides legal representation to victims of discrimination. We serve eight counties of central and northern New York going all the way up to St. Lawrence County.

Reeher: Where does your funding come from?

Santangelo: We have a mix of funding. The largest source of funding is through HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, through a Fair Housing Initiatives Program grant. And we also receive funding from the municipalities we serve. So, we have funding mostly through community development block grant programs…[In] many of the communities we serve, we help provide fair housing services for the people in those communities on behalf of those municipalities…Of course, we do raise money from individual donors. We do some contract work as well, so we do training for housing providers.

Reeher: What are your organization’s enforcement powers? I’m trying to get a sense of where you are in terms of relationship to a government organization. Can you actually enforce some of these things?

Santangelo: What we do is we investigate complaints, so if an individual believes they are a victim of discrimination, they can contact us, and we will investigate their complaint. We also conduct undercover testing on behalf of those individuals to try to verify that what they experienced was in fact discrimination. And we also can do audit-based testing where we go out to the market and to the areas where we suspect there is discrimination, and we are able to do testing and identify areas in which there may be discrimination. And then we do have an attorney on staff who will represent clients [when] either we file cases in state or federal court, or we can file cases with New York state division of human rights or with HUD…We help file those cases on behalf of those individuals and then we represent them through the legal process, which sometimes can be very long. We also sometimes will just refer individuals to those agencies to file complaints on their own.

Reeher: This is the 50-year anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, so could you provide a thumbnail sketch of the biggest issues in housing discrimination in the 50 years since that passage of that act, both across the nation but also in central New York in particular? What have been some of the big trends we’ve seen?

Santangelo: The Fair Housing Act, when it was passed in 1968, banned discrimination based on race, color, national origin and religion. It was amended in 1974 to add gender. And then, probably the most important amendment to the Fair Housing Act was in 1988—the Fair Housing Amendments Act—which added familial status…and disability. Since the addition of that, disability has become by far the number one reason for complaints of housing discrimination. In our agency…over 60 percent of our complaints annually are disability related, and that’s a trend both globally and nationally. That’s really…an important area that we’re starting to see hopefully some progress, but there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of making sure people with disabilities have access to housing to make sure that they’re able to remain in their housing.

Reeher: The city of Syracuse has been identified…as having particularly concentrated poverty and also racially concentrated poverty. So, how does housing segregation, in that sense, and then housing discrimination work together? Are they related? How are they different? How’s that dynamic go?

Santangelo: Certainly, they’re related. There’s ways in which housing discrimination keeps people out of housing…There’s also these really larger, systemic issues, things like where affordable housing is cited, that really affect things more structurally and more systemically that we still have a lot of work to do. And many of the reasons why the city of Syracuse continues to have these kind of inglorious distinctions is because of some of these systemic problems that we still haven’t addressed adequately.

Reeher: Your office is concerned with not just economic kinds of discrimination, but you’re also concerned with other dimensions…sexual harassment…disability…Tell me more about how those issues play out in the Syracuse area. What are the dynamics there? What are the problems that you’re seeing more specifically?

Santangelo: We have…several cases, actually, of people with developmental disabilities who are either denied housing or they’re treated differently, and it’s made clear when they’re applying for that housing that they’re maybe not welcome there…The other big area we focus on in disability is related to reasonable accommodations and modifications for people with disabilities. So, a modification would be something like installing a ramp for somebody with a mobility impairment. The accommodations are changes in rules and policies to allow a person with a disability to have the full use of their housing…A lot of these cases are related to emotional support animals…We have received more cases for children with autism who have needs related to their disability that housing providers are denying…The disability discrimination happens both before people apply for housing but also when they’re in that housing.

Reeher: And what about the sexual harassment piece? Tell me about what kinds you’re seeing there and the nature of that problem.

Santangelo: This last year, in 2017, we filed a rather large case against a housing provider in the city of Oswego. Eight women are included in that case alleging that the housing provider was…requiring sex in exchange for rent or security deposits. And the allegations include unwanted sexual contact, and the women who have faced this have essentially faced a choice…between becoming homeless or going along with this housing provider’s demands or wishes. Since we filed that case…we’re starting to hear of other cases as well right here, even some in Syracuse, of housing providers doing similar things or just making unwelcome comments. And there’s nowhere a woman should feel safer than in their own home, so take these allegations seriously. And I think as part of the national movement to address sexual harassment and deal with sexual harassment mostly in the workplace, I think women have started to come forward, which is great…We want to stop this practice, obviously, and so we hope to continue to push on this effort.

Reeher: What’s the very worst case that you’ve dealt with in your time at this agency, the one that really sticks out in your mind?

Santangelo: I think certainly the sexual harassment case has been really among the worst that we have ever heard. In a way, sometimes it’s the cases that are less obvious that are really upsetting. The cases where an individual maybe wouldn’t have known that they were actually discriminated against when were it not for further investigation. In a way, those almost hurt a little more because we know it’s happening, and we know it’s happening to others. It’s estimated nationally 90 percent of fair housing cases go unreported, so that in a way can be really maddening. So we actually investigated a property company about a year and a half ago, and we did some of our undercover testing for this property…In this case, we had an African American tester who went to this property to inquire about renting an apartment, and the individual was asked about their job history and then was told they would need to provide copies of their paystubs…and a copy of their license to do a criminal and credit check, which is a pretty normal process…We then had a white tester, very similarly matched to the black tester, who then went to the same property. And the white tester was asked about their job history, and that was it. They were not told they would need to provide paystubs. They were not told that they would need to go through a criminal and credit check. And were it not for those two different experiences, if both of those individuals had a criminal history or had a poor credit, only one of them would’ve been denied housing because of it. And we see this repeated over and over again. …That sometimes kind hurts a little more because we know that that’s happening over and over again, and we need to do everything we can to stop it and to teach housing providers that not only is that wrong, but that it will be enforced.

Reeher: What’s the good success story? What’s the thing that you look back on and say “Oh, that’s where we made a difference”?

Santangelo: We’ve been really successful in some specific instances of just keeping people in their housing…We had a case a couple years ago, a family. They were denied housing. It was a single mother with four children. She was denied housing because of the children, and they wouldn’t allow her to rent an apartment. And she ultimately didn’t get the opportunity to live in that apartment. They rented it to someone else. We were able to get her some relief in filing a case, and she was able to utilize the damages in that to help get better housing for her and her kids. So, sometimes there are successes. Unfortunately, we’re at a point right now where the process in pursuing these cases is really long. Even pursuing cases with HUD or with the division of human rights is taking upwards of two years…So we’re hoping for a lot of good successes in the coming months as we get some of these additional cases resolved.

Reeher: It is my impression and my experience that in the better-off suburbs around the city, there is often resistance to new proposed housing projects that include mixed-income housing. The local residents often mobilize to keep those projects from being approved, and they do that for a variety of reasons that don’t always get, I think, publicly articulated. What’s your take on that dynamic? Is that a problem? Do you see it? And how do you think that the decision-making process around that might be improved if what I’m identifying is correct?

Santangelo: You are identifying it correctly. We certainly see this. There’s often times proposals to build, for example, not only mixed-income housing, which might include both affordable housing and market-rate housing, but we even see resistance to building luxury apartments in some neighborhoods…Sometimes there’s resistance to things like traffic or what the building might look like, but time and time again…we see comments like…they don’t want to deal with those people with those problems or say things like they don’t want to live near the riff-raff…We see…unfound suspicions that crime will increase or that the schools can’t handle it. And we see really that kind of nimbyism playing out throughout our suburban communities…We want to make sure people have a lot of different choices in their housing, and right now…75 percent of the affordable rental housing in Onondaga County…is within the city of Syracuse. The city actually only has one third of the total housing units in Onondaga County, but 75 percent of the affordable housing. It adds to the segregation. It is one of the reasons why we are the worst city in the country for African Americans and Latinos living in concentrated poverty and fifth in the country for whites living in concentrated poverty. So, we want to work to change that…We need to not only work to educate people in the community about these issues that bubble up with nimbyism, but we also need to change policy processes at the state and county level to help encourage this…New York state, I think, needs to do more to fund these sorts of mixed-income properties.

Reeher: President Trump, as a real estate developer before he became President Trump, has some history with fair housing practices. His company was sued by the justice department for discrimination. So, do you worry about how the federal government is going to orient itself toward this issue under this administration either because of that history or for other reasons?

Santangelo: I am worried a bit about some of what could happen to fair housing under this administration. We just saw recently that HUD is changing its mission statement to remove anti-discrimination language from its mission statement, but there are actually more specific things that HUD has done. One of the things they have done recently is suspended an Obama-era provision rule under the Fair Housing Act that would require communities to do more to proactively address fair housing issues. And it was a huge accomplishment under the Obama administration, and that new rule—it’s called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing—has now been suspended by Secretary [Ben] Carson. And that’s a concern. There’s a number of recent developments really that happened within the last couple of years of the Obama administration that helped strengthen fair housing enforcement that now we are starting to see brought back a little bit…Also proposals to reduce funding for things like the Community Development Block Grant Program…it’s an important source of funding for fair housing organizations, but…they’re working to try to eliminate that funding. Those are real concerns, and it’s something that we continue to try to mobilize around and also hope that it doesn’t get worse as well.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.