Task force explores how to address racism in housing

Members of the St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force say the response to a recent racist incident at Heuvelton Central School could indicate a desire in the community to address racism, including in the housing market. Matt Curatolo/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — Members of the St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force say the reaction to a recent racial incident at Heuvelton Central School could indicate a desire in the community to address racism, including in the housing market.

“In the wake of the incident, there has been some call for community involvement,” said Planner II John F. Tenbusch, who represents the county Planning Office on the task force.

He highlighted news coverage of the incident and a protest march, as well as a statement from the district’s board of education and an editorial.

“And then there is some information from the St. Lawrence County survey of the community from October 2020. Each of these speaks to a need or desire for community involvement in addressing topics of racism in the community,” Mr. Tenbusch said. “We are a fair housing group, which means our focus is housing. But we look at it through the prism of racial discrimination. So, the thought that occurred to me was, do we think we have a place if there is going to be community involvement in this issue in Heuvelton?”

“I think most of us would agree that similar issues either have or might occur in some of our other communities,” he added. “Is there a place for the Fair Housing Task Force to assist in either doing outreach to the communities or providing some education to communities to help them work through this process?” he asked.

Planner II Matilda M. Larson from the county Planning Office suggested the task force could address it during a Fair Housing Month public event scheduled for April 28.

“It could tie back to the experiences of racial discrimination back at the Heuvelton Central School District. But, I think a special focus should be based on access to housing because of the nature, the intent of this organization,” she said.

She said, in years past and with sponsorship from area lending institutions, the group has posted digital ads to help raise awareness about people experiencing discrimination when trying to access housing.

“That did lead to some hits to the Fair Housing Task Force website. That is a possible activity that could be worked on during the month of April or sometime during the spring,” Ms. Larson said.

Mr. Tenbusch said he and Ms. Larson spoke to Sally A Santangelo, executive director of CNY Fair Housing, about a possible presentation.

“Sally frequently will do a presentation during that month. We found out that there might be some possibility for Sally to include some community responses to racial discrimination as part of her presentation. She had proposed and most of her presentation would be focused on housing,” Mr. Tenbusch said. “But, we might be able to address community responses for racism in the community, however briefly in that workshop.”

“I think the idea of doing digital advertising to just acknowledge the issue could be helpful in acknowledging how racism still impacts housing choice, doing that and then just even like Facebook ads or something,” Ms. Santangelo said.

She said that would allow members to promote the task force as a source of assistance for anyone who is experiencing racism in the housing market.

Ms. Larson said many lending institutions have social media accounts, and the task force could prepare a digital ad and ask that it be posted on social media.

“And we’re not specifically responding to a specific incident in Heuvelton and you’re talking about the issue on a county-wide basis,” Mr. Tenbusch said.

In addition, Ms. Larson said, Jefferson Community College’s Center for Community Studies does an annual survey of Northern New York counties and racism was one of the subjects in one survey.

“One of the questions or series of questions that we asked JCC to include in last year’s survey instrument is for participants to disclose whether or not they felt they experienced racism in the past year in their efforts to secure housing. That data has not been publicly presented to the county yet. It is scheduled during the first week in March,” Ms. Larson said. “I would be curious to see what the numbers look like compared to prior years when the similar series of questions was asked.”

She said they could look at the data in aggregate based on location, or based on the respondent’s ethnicity and race.

“I can certainly ask the staff at JCC to do some cross tabulation to see if they can pull that data for us to see whether or not it’s just historically significant, and that could help form the discussion, too, once it’s made publicly available,” Ms. Larson said.

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