Courtesy of Jason Houghton

Houghton returns to the race for the fifth ward Common Council seat after losing in the Democratic primaries.

November 6, 2023

Jason Houghton Runs as Independent Candidate for Fifth Ward Common Council Seat

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With election day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, voters in the Fifth Ward will see Jason Houghton’s name on the ballot in the race for the two-year seat. After his loss to Clyde Lederman ’26 in June’s Democratic primary election by just 10 votes, Houghton continued his campaign as an independent candidate.

Houghton’s bid for Common Council comes as Ithaca sees its first general elections with the re-drawn ward map. The redrawing left the Fifth Ward — which now encompasses Cornell’s North Campus, Cornell Heights and University Hill — populated predominantly by Cornell students.

Though he grew up detasseling corn in small-town Iowa, Houghton said he found a home in Ithaca, where he has lived for 17 years. Houghton described the current state of affairs in Ithaca as pivotal and a large influence for launching his bid.

“I’m running for Council because I think it’s a really critical time for Ithaca,” Houghton said. “We are getting a new city manager. We’ll have a new mayor. We’re going to have a new police chief. Our City Comptroller has recently announced his retirement, and our city attorney has recently resigned. So lots of change is coming to the city.”

Following his loss to Lederman, Houghton reevaluated his campaign strategy, noting crucial failures — including the fact that it took him until mid-to-late April to collect signatures and receive approval from his employer to run. 

“By the time I started putting my name out there and campaigning, students were really focused on finals,” Houghton said. “My outreach to students during the primary was really lacking.” 

Houghton is running a joint campaign and platform with fellow Fifth Ward candidate and neighbor of his, Margaret Fabrizio, who is vying for the four-year seat. While initially uncertain about continuing to run after his June loss, he said others spurred him on.

“Several people, both within and outside the ward, contacted me and really encouraged me to keep running,” Houghton said. “So after a couple months of indecision, I decided I would continue to run.”

Aside from the changing landscape, Houghton highlighted affordability as his other key reason for running — and also a threat to his ability to call Ithaca home.

Lederman has proposed the use of rent stabilization under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act as a potential solution to Ithaca’s housing woes. While Houghton said he said he is not opposed to the policy, he expressed fear for unintended consequences, noting that Ithaca is a market where just a few landlords can greatly influence prices. 

“I’m very much for exploring the ETPA,” Houghton said. “But I do fear that if we started to implement rent stabilization we might have instances where landlords take buildings that are six units and reduce them to five, or where they’ll create a five percent vacancy rate that would disqualify us from use of the act. We are not New York City.” 

Instead, Houghton indicated that he would be more enthusiastic about rent stabilization if it were enacted county-wide or along with nearby municipalities, despite the fact that it would be most applicable to Ithaca, as it only applies to buildings of six or more units built before 1974.

Affordability in a city where nearly 60 percent of land is tax-exempt, Houghton said, also involves support from Cornell, at least at a level similar to Cornell’s peer schools. But with the Common Council approving a 15-year memorandum of understanding between Cornell and the city just last month, Houghton added that garnering that support from the University remains difficult.

Houghton said he would not have signed the MOU, though he clarified that he understood the pressure the Common Council faced to sign it. 

“I think the City Council voted for [the MOU] because they felt pressure with the new labor contracts,” Houghton said, also pinning blame on the city’s lack of planning. “The city put itself in that situation for lack of foresight … It was a short time until they had to finalize next year’s budget — the $4 million was guaranteed for them for next year if they agreed to this. If they didn’t agree, the timeline was very short, and the $4 million was uncertain.”

Houghton said he does not believe reliance on Cornell’s generosity is sound policy. Instead, he is looking towards state-level policy approaches guaranteeing support from the University.

“Win or lose, I would like some legislation in Albany that somehow obligates Cornell to contribute to the city. I don’t think the city should just be reliant on Cornell’s generosity,” Houghton said, citing models from other cities which would tax dorms or profit-generating centers like the Statler Hotel. 

Houghton noted that he understands the importance of tax exemptions for universities.

As part of this mission to get Cornell to contribute more to the city, Houghton also proposed tying Cornell’s contribution to the city’s tax levy.

“I would continue to work for legislation that creates a formula so that when our tax levy goes up, Cornell’s contribution goes up,” Houghton said. ”That just obligates them in some way to the city the way the rest of us are obligated.”

Houghton is also advocating for closer collaboration between the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County,  as well as with adjacent municipalities like Lansing, Dryden, Cayuga Heights and the Town of Ithaca. 

“I think [working with surrounding municipalities] is part of creating a more affordable Ithaca,” Houghton said. “We need to start looking at how to more efficiently provide city services. We have all these little places doing these duplicate services — I would like to ensure that we’re coordinating those services as best as we can.” 

As for Tompkins County, Houghton said he would like a better, healthier relationship with county-level officials as well, who he views as important in helping coordinate municipal services.

Houghton and Lederman differ on certain issues. On the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, Lederman argued for greater funding.

“[TCAT] is not sustainable,” Lederman said in a previous interview with The Sun. “It’s about increasing funding so that we can reduce headways in the routes so buses run more frequently.”

Houghton said he saw TCAT’s funding levels to be adequate, arguing that TCAT’s troubles lie in personnel issues.

Houghton noted that TCAT’s largest funding source comes from the New York State Operating Assistance fund but that if more resources were required for proper service, working with stakeholders like Cornell and the city to increase that funding would be a priority for him. 

Houghton — who received his law degree from the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, formerly known as Hastings College of the Law — has worked primarily in technology and is currently an information technology product manager at PNC Bank. Depending on Tuesday’s outcome, he may be able to put his legal training to use serving Ithaca.

“I don’t have any big [political] ambitions beyond the Ithaca Common Council,” Houghton said. “I’m doing this out of a sense of obligation to my community.”