ITHACA, N.Y. –– As many Ithacans are facing unemployment and economic hardship in the wake of increased COVID-19 restrictions on business, the call from some locals for a suspension of rent payments has strengthened over the last week.

A change.org petition emerged earlier this week, authored by community organizer Genevieve Rand, titled “COVID-19: Ithaca Rent Freeze Now!” The petition is addressed to the City of Ithaca Common Council, Mayor Svante Myrick, the Tompkins County Legislature and Aaron Levine, the City of Ithaca Attorney.

“Money has ceased its flow into the pockets of Ithaca’s most vulnerable — and we need immediate action to stop it from bleeding out,” the petition says.

Petitioners are asking that rent payments by tenants in Ithaca be suspended by city legislative action immediately until the COVID-19 crisis passes.

Almost 2,300 have signed on to the petition –– part of a trend nationally that has seen Americans urging their elected officials to ease financial burdens through similar means.

Rand stressed how vital a rent suspension is to the community. 

“Rent is everybody’s biggest expense, and most important,” she said. 

Accommodation and food services is the third-largest employer in Ithaca, behind retail and education. Sweeping restrictions on businesses in New York State to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially for bars and restaurants, has undoubtedly led to steep losses in income for a lot of residents. 

Organizers meeting on a Zoom call

The newly formed Ithaca Tenants Union, in conjunction with the Tompkins County Worker’s Center, has been at the forefront of advocating for renter protections over the last few weeks as local business has taken a hit. The ITU began their crisis work by pressuring legislators to pass a moratorium on evictions –– a goal that in the midst of their communications with local representatives, was enacted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Most recently, the ITU has joined Rand in the mission of suspending rent, co-creating the petition and meeting (via the internet) with other local organizers and Mayor Svante Myrick in order to strategize. 

“It picked up a lot quicker than Gen or I could have expected,” said Liel Sterling, an ITU organizer. “It just goes to show you how necessary it is.” 

Sterling said that because the petition has gained a lot of traction, the next phase of action will be to figure out logistics and what can and cannot be done at the local level. 

“We’re trying to figure out what’s realistic, and what could have the most impact for people,” she said. 

As of now, the tentative plan for organizers is to try and continue to garner community support in order to pressure state actors. 

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, who has been actively communicating with the ITU and their fellow organizers, said that any rent suspension would have to be handed down on the federal level.

“The federal government is the only institution big enough to foot the bill,” he said.

That’s not to say a rent suspension is not something that he is thinking about on the local level –– but that municipalities should be looking to leaders both at the state and federal level to take action to support people.

“We are in an unprecedented crisis and it’ll take unprecedented steps to prevent economic collapse nationwide,” Myrick said.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com