ITHACA, N.Y. — The city’s monthly Planning and Economic Development Committee was deep in the weeds this month. At issue was concern over enforcement of occupancy and renter health and safety laws, following a story from the Cornell Daily Sun regarding an unsafe housing situation on Thurston Avenue. Several speakers during public comment also noted a destructive and potentially illegal situation involving a property housing Cornell wrestlers in the Belle Sherman neighborhood.

City Director of Code Enforcement Mike Niechiadowicz strongly contested claims that the city was unresponsive to concerns, saying that code enforcement staff did everything they could. He noted that when a violation is found, a $250/day fine can’t be levied right away. The law is such that the accused has to be taken to court, found guilty, and fined through the court.

“In the past, we would write three request letters for certificates of compliance. We keep a database, and we go to the oldest ones, and send out request letters. We’d send out a letter to remind them. The first was friendly, the second would get stronger, the third was very serious and would threaten to prosecute. That was eight to 10 years ago. Homeowners complained to Council that these letters were causing fear, and we were told to back off…” Niechiadowicz said, adding, “I like having the tool of prosecution, (but) no, I’m not going to go to it right away. I like voluntary compliance.”

Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) added that part of the problem is a lack of awareness, particularly by student renters who may not know when a landlord is doing something illegal. She said she hopes the colleges will step up in educating student renters. Brock added that over-occupancy also tends to be an issue with rental units.

Niechiadowicz replied that education is easier than investigation, especially if landlords and tenants refuse to cooperate with an investigation. There’s no legal penalty in the city code for landlords who rent condemned units, he said.

A few options were considered during the two-hour discussion. They included creating an ad-hoc committee to look into housing reform and passing a local law saying that if a tenant is forced out due to condemnation, the landlord must provide suitable, legal alternative housing. The board reacted favorably to creating a new law, but cautioned that it has to be worded to avoid creating additional issues.

Priorities in the short term for bringing rental housing up to code will be tackling properties with bad conditions and no known certificates of compliance and working with neighbors to get documentation of over-occupancy. As far as a lack of certificates of compliance, the building department will pursue known violators who are now simply avoiding compliance inspections. The goal will be to do as much as possible, and it’ll be a little while before some clear results can be reviewed by the council.

Southside Mural

Plans were also discussed for installing a multi-panel mosaic on the exterior of the Southside Community Center. The Mosaic Mural Project, part of the “Black Girl Alchemists” initiative, will celebrate the power and talent of black girls by mounting eight ceramic mosaic panels, created by kids and teens at Southside, on the exterior of the building. The primary concern noted by the committee was the relatively high overall cost of the project; most public art projects cost a few thousand dollars, but the mosaic is extremely heavy and the city Board of Public Works is requiring a self-supporting steel framing structure for the panels. The final cost is expected to be between $15,000-$20,000, more than the $11,000 available in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Walkway Fund.

Related: Southside Community Center celebrates 85 years of empowering black girls

Councilors generally lauded the artwork, but also explored a stipulation for the city’s funds to not exceed a certain amount (to be determined before the full council approves), and a chat with the controller to discuss grant opportunities and availability for leveraging of future funds.

“We don’t typically fund artwork, but this is funding for the presentation and structure of artwork, and in the best interest of the building. I am more comfortable with that. It would be a terrible missed opportunity if we did not go forward with this, it would be a real asset and gem to the community. I feel comfortable putting forward as is,” said Brock. Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) called the mosaic mural “a phenomenal piece of art”.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd), concerned about the costs, asked if there were cheaper display alternatives, but the short answer is “not really,” due to the Southside Community Center’s brick wall and concerns from the citizens’ Community Life Commission. Mayor Svante Myrick replied that they could look at allocation of other funds flagged for a similar purpose that may be available to help cover the costs. The committee voted to send the mural decision on to the full council next month for a final approval vote.

INHS Presentation

Also a part of the meeting was a presentation from Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services regarding their latest work. The local housing services and development non-profit detailed its recent staff expansion, from 35 to 47 staff, and said they have expanded services and existing and new housing. Along with their ongoing citywide renovations, low-cost homebuyer loans and repair services, the organization will be adding six houses to its affordable for-sale housing trust, the Community Housing Trust, this year: four modular townhouses to be built at 402 S. Cayuga St. (site plan here), a renovated bungalow at 310 S. Corn St,, and their first four-bedroom for-sale home at 707 Hancock St. These homes are locked in at two percent annual price appreciation, meaning they are unable to be sold at a higher amount so they will remain permanently affordable (99 years, technically) to lower-income buyers.

Related: ‘Vibrant mixed-use community’ planned for Immaculate Conception School property with sale to INHS

Also in the very early planning process is the mixed-use, mixed low-income and moderate-income development at the Immaculate Conception School site on the 300 Block of West Buffalo Street. Pre-project community meeting plans are being hashed out, and according to their presentation, INHS would like to have residential occupancy on the property by December 2021. That date will be dependent on the availability and receipt of affordable housing grants and tax credits.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.