ITHACA, N.Y.—A group of dozens gathered outside the Cayuga Garden Apartments (formerly known as the Chestnut Hill Apartments) on West Hill in Ithaca on Saturday afternoon, calling for more transparency from the owners of the apartments as rumors of impending renovations and resulting rent increases swirl—though the property’s owners say these fears are unfounded.

The protest was reminiscent of other actions organized by the Ithaca Tenants Union in the past, the group that was also at the helm of Saturday’s event, complete with the same type of chants and slogans about ending evictions, canceling rent and advocating tenants’ rights as human rights. There were about 40 people in attendance, many of whom were from ITU, three candidates for political office locally, and a few residents of the Cayuga Gardens apartment complex, which primarily houses low-income tenants, some of whom use Section 8 vouchers to help cover their rent costs.

“It’s just too much,” said Trevor Taylor, a resident of the complex for three years. He said he didn’t believe many other residents of the complex knew about the potential issue, other than at least one other resident who showed up to the rally and talked about his pending eviction, which has been delayed due to COVID-19. “I was told by the Tenants Union, and I came out and decided to fight, I’m not afraid to fight for anything. I gotta live here, I pay my rent on time. I want to know, what’s the deal? Tell us the truth.”

Taylor, who uses Section 8 vouchers to partially pay for his rent, acknowledged that there had been other rent increases in years past, but they had been manageable. If renovations are coming, he said, he’d like to see them address long-running issues that he feels management has been silent or slow to react to, like heating and lighting issues and non-functioning garbage disposals, the latter in his apartment specifically.

All three Common Council candidates who are running as part of the Solidarity Slate, Niya Foster (Ward 1), Phoebe Brown (Ward 2) and George DeFendini (Ward 4), arrived to support the protest and advance the case against gentrification as well.

“Give them East Hill, we’ll stay on our side,” said one protester, addressing the crowd and referring to college students, one of the main generators of gentrification in Ithaca. “How much more can Ithaca give to college students? Collegetown is over there, keep those kids on that damn hill.”

The fears are undeniably real, and are rooted in years of seeing gentrification push low-income people farther out of downtown Ithaca. But whether they are justified in this specific instance is murky. Derek Carroll, the principal at High Peak Capital, which owns Cayuga Garden Apartments, denied that his company intends to drive people out of their apartments in the complex, though he acknowledged that renovations are coming.

Rumors have persisted that High Peak is preparing to spend $90 million in renovations on the property, exacerbating concerns over rent increases. Presented with that number and a chance to confirm or deny it, Carroll laughed and denied it, pointing out that High Peak only paid $3.2 million for the property when they purchased it in 2019. He said the planned renovations are for “less than 1 percent of ($90 million).”

Carroll said, from his perspective, the fear is being generated by the Ithaca Tenants Union, which he says is misguided in its objections to the plan. He claimed to have not heard directly from any tenants about worries over rent increases. He said ITU is “trying to cause a commotion” among tenants when there isn’t a need for one.

“Yes, we’re spending some money on it,” Carroll said. “I’m curious why this is a bad thing. The previous owners never put money into the property, we’re doing both: putting money into the property, and also maintaining the rents to within Section 8 limits. I think they’re very misinformed about what they’re doing. (…) We’re cleaning the property up, making it nice, and it’s going to stay like it is, relatively affordable.”

Rent prices could rise for tenants who are already living there, Carroll said, but he insisted that it would “not be anything substantial.” Whether or not a certain unit’s rent price would increase, he said, would be determined on a case-by-case basis. “Wholesale changes,” he said, are not coming to the property and there is no need to apply for a building permit from the City of Ithaca because the work being done isn’t significant enough. The idea had been pushed at the protest and before that the city should withhold building permits for the renovations without a commitment from High Peak to maintain affordable rents, but Carroll’s comments would seem to render that moot.

“Affordable” is obviously a pliable term that can mean different things in different contexts, but the publicly available rent prices, via Apartments.com, show that a one-bedroom unit at Cayuga Gardens would rent for $950-995 per month, with a higher range of $1,150-1,195 per month for a three bedroom.

“We’re not just going in and saying ‘Hey, your rents are jumping way up to new prices,'” Carroll said. “We have vacant units that we’re renovating, and those are the asking prices for the vacant units, and those asking prices are still affordable rents.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com