This is the first part of the series No Place to Call Home: Ithaca’s Housing Crisis.

CAROLINE, N.Y. — Ana Ortiz did not want to become an activist. As a 20-year Ithaca resident, Ortiz only embraced the role after Elmira Savings Bank purchased the North Meadow Street property she was renting last December.

“I had no clue the house was on the market,” Ortiz said. That did not matter as she was issued 30 days to move out. The notice, she said, was given to her teenage daughter Dec. 23.

After community outcry about the issue, the bank offered Ortiz and three other displaced residents a better deal: a $1,000 stipend to assist with moving fees and a new move-out date in late spring.

One year later, Ortiz remembers life as “busy and crazy ” before relocating to Caroline — a small town southwest of Ithaca. She is still busy – corralling four children can get crazy from time to time — yet she maintains an optimistic tone, even though her life has been upended from the episode.

“What do you mean you are lost,” Ortiz asked her youngest daughter over the phone. Hoping to gather information about her daughter’s misguided school bus, she excuses herself to call the elementary school — “I don’t know the roads here, my daughter doesn’t know the way … she is scared and crying.”

Ortiz remains calm while on the phone, but is visibly frustrated about the episode. Ten minutes later, her daughter comes rambling through the backdoor with exasperation, and Ortiz is relieved by her presence.

“It’s this, it’s that, but we keep on going.” Ortiz says, “The neighbors are nice, trees are everywhere,” but the demands of moving to another town are taxing.

The view near Ana Ortiz’s new home in Caroline. Photo by Chris Rondem/The Ithaca Voice

She now drives 20 minutes to Danby for groceries, 30 minutes to Ithaca for prescriptions, while her children are scattered at different schools around the area. Ortiz had centered her life around community when living in Ithaca, but now she must commute to and fro, leaving little time for the relationships she developed.

When Ortiz lived near downtown she had friends — her  “team” of supporters — around her to help look after the children if she needed to run an errand. She now lives next to a Christmas tree farm, about a half mile down a sparsely populated road. It’s a stark contrast from where she used to live, near the busy intersection of West Seneca and North Meadow streets.

As Ortiz discusses her support system, she recalls how much they have meant during the past year.

“My team is everything. We support. We fight for each other,” she said.

However, three of the team members live in Ithaca, and another has been displaced from Ithaca due to high rent. “[My friend] was paying [$1100] a month for a one-bedroom downtown,” says Ortiz. “She couldn’t do it anymore.”

Ortiz remembers that her “team was screaming and yelling, and ready to go tear some people down” after they realized what transpired last December. It was the visceral disgust of her team that lead Ortiz to activism.

“I had heard about these things happening as long I lived in Ithaca,” she said, but it seems to her that is used to be a rare occurrence.

Ortiz knew as a low-income, single mother of four that she didn’t have the clout to appeal the process in a formal manner. She figured that by herself she would be ignored, so Ortiz decided to “make commotion so they know we’re here.”

Ortiz used her community organization skills to help rally her team to protest her displacement last year. Ortiz admits that she was angry at the situation, but urged everyone to “calm down, take a breath, and let’s go figure this out.”

The end result was muddy. Ortiz and other residents said their landlord, Steven Wells, had allowed residents to sign renewed year-long leases in the summer, but never gave them a copy of the new lease, despite requests. A bank official said Wells provided the bank with expired leases from all the residents, meaning that by default, all the leases were only valid for month-to-month rentals. The bank said they were never provided with the renewed year-long leases residents said they signed.

Wells could not be reached for comment by The Ithaca Voice at the time.

When asked about the housing crisis in Ithaca, Ortiz doesn’t blame Elmira Savings Bank, but instead wonders “Where’s the respect?” She remembers the strong, close-knit community that kept her in town for so many years, but said the community is eroding.

“No one cares for each other. No one looks at each other. The powerful people don’t care about us,” she said.

Nevertheless, Ortiz maintains her optimism, hoping to one day have a “multi-cultural event” that “brings Latinos, Indigenous, Asians, everyone” of Ithaca together. If her dream is going to come true, Ortiz will have to plan the community get-together as a non-resident.

Featured photo: Ana Ortiz stands on her porch in Caroline. Photo by Chris Rondem/The Ithaca Voice