Common Council of Ithaca passes “Officer Next Door” program
On Jan. 20, the Common Council of Ithaca passed an initiative called “Officer Next Door” for the West Village area of Ithaca.
A similar initiative is The Good Neighbor Next Door program by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that houses law enforcement officers, pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade teachers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians in order to contribute to “community revitalization” with the requirement that the civil servant live there for a minimum of three years. The agenda of the City Administration committee meeting at which the initiative was passed said the program “promotes strong potential to benefit public safety in the city.”
Under the “Officer Next Door” program, which was voted on in January, officers will legally live rent-free in any of the West Village apartment units on Abbott Lane and West Village Place as well as in the Chestnut Hill apartments on Chestnut Street.
Many of these complexes are owned by third party real estate companies. West Village Apartments, off of Elm Street in Ithaca, was sold to Omni New York LLC, which is owned by former MLB star Maurice “Mo” Vaughn, by Abbott Associates in 2007. The complex, made up of of 253 housing units, and is one of the many subsidized apartment complexes in the country.
In August 2013, Omni New York LLC, in an effort to crack down on crime in the area, allocated $12,000 to the Ithaca Police Department to be used to increase police patrols in the West Hill area, which includes the West Village. And in February 2015, Omni New York LLC allocated an additional $12,000 toward extra patrols in West Hill.
In the summer of 2015, a police officer started living rent-free in the apartment complex under an offer by Omni New York LLC, 1st Ward Alderperson George McGonigal said. The first ward encompasses the West Village.
At the time, IPD Public Information Officer Jamie Williamson said in a media release: “These extra patrols will help the Ithaca Police Department address community concerns and to improve the overall quality of life in the area.” Williamson also quoted IPD Police Chief John Barber as saying: “This additional funding will put officers on the streets up there, and that will enable us to better improve the service that we provide to the Ithaca community as a whole.”
The West Village apartment complex near downtown Ithaca is isolated by trees from the surrounding suburbs. Two, two-story long buildings sit back-to-back with half-empty parking lots on either side. At one end there is a slide marked for children ages two to five. There is a green ramp leading from the upper parking lot, over the lower lot, and onto the outdoor corridors of the upper levels, which are identical to the ramp. There are two dumpsters, one for each building, both full and in separate corners of the parking lots by the woods.
“You’ve got an open wooded area that covers two sides. There’s many entrances into the various buildings,” 1st Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock, the only member of Ithaca’s Common Council to vote against the Officer Next Door program, said. Brock emphasized the importance of transparency to increase a feeling of safety for everyone living in the complex, including officers.
“You actually have to walk through a corridor to get to your apartment, which means it really creates environments where people can intimidate you as you walk by,” Brock said. “As a police officer or even as a tenant, you feel like you could be easily ambushed. If you were to design a housing complex that would be difficult to manage, this is pretty much a good design.”
There is a laundry room for the whole complex. A tenant originally from Long Island who has been living in a unit there since August, and who prefered not to give her name, waited for her clothes to finish being washed. There are signs labelling the “rules” for the laundry room as well as its hours: 8 a.m to 8:45 p.m., a time limitation she claims is a nuisance to tenants.
She liked the idea of police officers living in the area, as long as there is identification and a good relationship between tenants and officers. Before the program was implemented there was already one police officer living in West Village. The tenant said she had heard about the officer’s presence, but did not know exactly who he is or which unit he lives in. She sometimes sees a man who she said “looks like a cop.”
“Visible police presence is better than invisible police presence,” she said.
This is the first time Ithaca has passed this program. The agenda from the City Administration committee meeting also stated: “In the future, the City may identify additional areas of the city experiencing higher crime rates in which such a program could also be useful.”
McGonigal supports the program. However, he is skeptical it will actually be implemented in areas of the city outside of West Village.
“In theory it could be [implemented in other areas], but I think it’s very unusual for a landlord to offer free rent,” he said. “Another factor is, because of West Village’s lousy reputation, they have an unusually high vacancy rate currently.”
McGonigal said there is a lot of violent crime in West Village.
“There’s not many other places in the city where people are getting beaten half to death or stabbed,” he said. “I’ve lived here for 35 years, and that’s the most dangerous place in town to live. There’s a large number of families with young children there, and this is basically about protecting those families.”
Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele, program coordinator for Energy Warriors at Cornell Cooperative Extension, knows many former inmates who live in West Village. He has noticed the changes in West Village over time.
“The crime rate in college town is higher than in West Village,” he said. “There are kids from rich places and everything … but there’s all this stuff, rape and the rest going on … they’ve got Cornell students, they’ve got kids doing various things, and I’m wondering why the policing is not that strenuous, but that’s ceded to campus safety. The policing has always been difficult.”
Airewele said he has talked with white people in the prison who have told him they have been doing drugs in a group of both white and black people, and when the police come they have arrested the blacks and let the whites go.
“When somebody has just come from prison, they can’t work,” he said. “You cannot get [federally] subsidized housing, so what do you do? It is a set-up for failure. Where will you rent if they are doing background checks? So they are going to end up in these lousy apartment complexes, where’s there’s very little, little inspiration to move forward.”
Still, there has been improvement.
“West Village is better than it used to be,” Airewele said.
The rental office of West Village Apartments is instructed not to talk to news organizations because journalists have given them a hard time in the past, most notably The Ithaca Voice, according to the office directors.
In fact, under The Voice’s “West Village Series” there are six articles by Jolene Almendarez from January to February of 2016, which touch on crime in the area. Almendarez’s findings: The West Village Apartments have a high concentration of violent crime, but the complex also has a higher concentration of people than other areas of the city, changing the energy of the area.
Airewele explains why he thinks the environment of a living place is so crucial.
“There is no family that does not want to raise children in a safe place,” he said. “I have always been under the impression that if you put people in a place that dignifies them, sometimes they live to that expectation. I have seen many housing units where the landlord wanted the people to feel dignified, and they lived up to it.”
Brock said she thinks the common assumption of violence in low income areas played a role in implementation of the Officer Next Door program.
As a tenant, the woman in the laundry room said she feels this bias.
“It’s not as bad as everyone says it is,” she said. “People are ignorant.”
“I know that in the minds of some people, low incomes suggest criminality,” Airewele said. “At the end of the day you have to say, ‘well what is it that they are pursuing?’ What are they zeroing in on? I have been to West Village many times and I didn’t see brawls, I didn’t see fights and all of that. It’s likely that when police are there, they are nervous, they are on high alert.”
Omni New York LLC’s mission is to provide “quality, well managed affordable housing in neighborhoods that have historically had a shortage of such affordable housing.” Brock said while the company did increase housing opportunities for low income residents, the complex is far from well managed.
Brock criticized the company’s relationship, or lack thereof, with tenants at West Village. She said the management of the complex is insufficient in establishing clear expectations of tenants.
“The city itself has very little jurisdiction in forcing a property owner to establish certain policies,” she said. “That’s really one of the limitations that’s so frustrating. You see this in Ithaca, you see it in Dryden, you see it in all communities where you have a property owner who isn’t taking responsibility for either the property or its tenants, and communities struggle with that.”
McGonigal also said there is a weak relationship between the city government and Omni New York LCC.
“It was bad, and it’s getting better,” he said. “I think they’re trying.”
The tenant said she has no problem with Omni New York LLC, but added she has never met anyone from the company. She wished they would reach out to tenants like she hears the Ithaca Housing Association does at Northside Developments, the city’s public housing.
Brock pointed to the low crime rate among Northside Developments as an example of why she thinks city government should manage low income housing units instead of third parties. According to a map of violent crimes in Ithaca in 2013-15 published by The Ithaca Voice, the Northside Developments has one of the lower crime rates in the city. According to the The Ithaca Voice, “Crime in West Village is more condensed than in other places in Ithaca, but it doesn’t have more crime than all the rest of Ithaca combined.”
Airewele sees both sides of the proposed program, and understands why there is disagreement.
“Behind all these things are citizens who are clamoring for one thing or another, who may not come out in the open,” he said. “Because if somebody has been victimized in a place, they won’t mind whatever you do to secure the place, and it may trample on other people’s sense of what’s fair and what’s right.”
Daniel Hart is a freshman journalism major who may or may not interview you if he finds you doing laundry. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.