ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca Common Council passed a resolution Wednesday urging state representatives to support legislation waiving rent, as well as their landlord’s mortgage payments, for a 90 day period.

Over the past few weeks, thousands locally have signed on to a petition calling for a city-wide rent suspension. The petition was authored by local activists in conjunction with the newly formed Ithaca Tenants Union.

Last week, petitioners took their action one step further, organizing a ‘phone zap’ during which volunteers called City of Ithaca Common Council members more than 1,200 times asking for their support for a rent “freeze” as they have dubbed it. The campaign hoped for more radical local action, but said in a statement that they are “inspired and invigorated” by the support from the community nonetheless.

“While this was not our primary goal, this resolution likely would not have passed unanimously if not for our collective efforts,” the Ithaca Rent Freeze Campaign said.

Many Ithacans have been faced with unemployment due to the COVID-19 crisis, and many fear that once the moratorium on evictions is lifted in New York State, that those who owe back rent are at risk of being kicked out of their homes.

“What I’ve heard again and again from the people that have been calling is that this is not a call for us to freeze rents across the board, the idea is that people should still be paying their rent if they can,” said Alderperson Seph Murtagh at Wednesday night’s meeting. “The state halted evictions…the concern is what happens four months down the line when they owe back rent?”

Despite empathy for renters, the city has made it clear that they are unable to pass rent suspension locally for three reasons, as outlined by the Ithaca City Attorney Ari Lavine.

  1. The Governor’s Executive Orders have prohibited municipalities across the state, including Ithaca, from issuing emergency orders related to COVID-19 without explicit permission from Albany.
  2. “Definitely legally questionable,” Lavine said, to enact a rent freeze that would permanently wipe rents off the books. Both Lavine and Mayor Svante Myrick argue that the city is poorly positioned to win a potential lawsuit against landlords who may sue for lost rent. Lavine explained that such action would be far more legally tenable if the state or federal government came in and paid the lost rent to landlords.
  3. City’s finances are in “tatters” or will be soon. Lavine further explained that the city does not have it in their budget at the current moment, to pay landlords lost rents. A report from City Controller Steven Thayer earlier in Wednesdays meeting estimates an annual revenue loss for the city between 15 percent and 30 percent — or between $9 million and $20 million.

“I think it’s the right move. I do regret that we couldn’t do it locally,” Mayor Myrick said.“I don’t think enacting a local rent freeze would have accomplished what we want to accomplish.”

Alderperson Murtagh, who authored the resolution, further explained why landlords at the local level are not in a position to have lost rent across the board, without state intervention.

“The majority of landlords in Tompkins County are 10 units or less and have worked very hard to build their livelihoods and they’re facing a situation where people can’t pay their rents,” Murtagh said. “They have to pay mortgage payments, they have to pay taxes, and they have to pay insurance.”

In a statement from the Landlords Association of Tompkins County, they ask that landlords be viewed through the same lens as any other small business owner during this crisis.

“Most landlords are willing to work through re-arranging payments and foregoing some income – but they are no more in a position to bear the brunt of this crisis than any other small business owner in our community,” their statement says.

Several council members that weighed in expressed concern over pre-COVID-19 flaws in the economy have been exposed by the current crisis.

“It’s fully revealed the vulnerability of our community,” Alderperson Cynthia Brock said. “We are seeing a large part of our economy that relies on the hospitality industry, and a growing reliance on gig work and informal employment…I think this speaks to the need, as we look to the future, to diversify our economy –– build jobs, and focus on getting rent levels back to reasonable levels.”

It is unclear whether New York State will make COVID-19 relief funding available in the coming months.

The Ithaca Rent Freeze Campaign said they will continue their work monitoring and discussing needs of their fellow Ithacans.

“In the span of just a few days, we developed a community network that will likely prove vital as this crisis further unfolds,” they said in their statement.

Myrick did say that he would continue to push New York’s federal delegation to act.

“I will continue to push for rent freeze rent forgiveness and compensation for landlords in all my conversations with our federal representatives,” he said.

Anna Lamb

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