ITHACA, N.Y. — Wednesday night’s city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting was dense as a pound cake and detail-oriented. Regardless, from zoning to potential new tenants’ rights regulation, the Voice has you covered. Dive in below and feel free to pull up a copy of the agenda here.

West Hill PUD Overlay District Expansion

First up were Special Orders of Business, starting with the Public Hearing for a proposed expansion of the the city’s Planned Unit Development Overlay District (PUDOD) to cover two properties on West Hill, the Army Reserve Center at 101 Sunrise Road and the Cayuga Park Apartments at 139-157 Chestnut Street.

Quick reminder, a PUDOD is a sort of “DIY Zoning,” with the concession that the Common Council gets to vote on a project, as well as host additional public hearings. A developer gets more flexibility to do mixed-use plans and it allows for some creativity in design, but it also gives the city more avenues to negotiate community benefits from a proposal, and halt the plan completely if they think it’s a bad idea.

The two aforementioned properties are both legally non-conforming parcels mixed in with West Hill’s single-family and two-family zoning. The Reserve Center is likely to be put up for sale next year by the U.S. Army. It would be offered first to the city, and if declined it will be put up in a private auction. Here, city planners want to open the door for redevelopment options. Cayuga Park, the Chestnut Street property, is 60 units of low-moderate income housing with no planned changes in use, but planning staff want to allow for potential future redevelopment if the desire arises. There is nothing imminent for either property; city staff just want to provide flexibility for potential redevelopment proposals later in the decade.

There was only speaker during the Public Hearing, Derek Carroll, the managing member of High Peaks Capital and owner of Cayuga Park. “I do think that one of the number one ways to overcome a lot of the issues that we’ve been seeing is quality housing that people can be proud to come home to. That doesn’t currently exist in a multiple-dwelling fashion on West Hill. We have excess land, we’d like to build new units, but we cannot as of current. We would need the PUD process to build affordable, workforce housing-type units.”

Following the Public Hearing, the PUDOD expansion came up again as an “Action Items” to send on to the full Common Council for approval. Compared to the rest of the agenda, the discussion was quite short.

“These parcels are significantly large for West Hill…I think there is a tremendous opportunity to do something creative there. The fact that if a developer wanted to do something that did not comply with underlying zoning, Council could perform additional review,” said Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward). Her word is given somewhat greater value because the properties are in her ward. The vote to send to council for final approval next month passed 4-0, with former councilor Smith’s seat still vacant.

New York State Housing Law Presentation

The Good Cause Eviction Legislation proposed last month is well-intended, but as presented it created more questions and concerns among members of the PEDC, who requested city staff bring in someone who could speak about the state protections (The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act) passed in 2019. That someone coming before the board this month is local lawyer Keith McCafferty, who is a supervising attorney with LawNY, a non-profit legal agency that provides free legal aid to people with regards to civil legal matters, like if someone is being threatened with eviction or facing home foreclosure.

McCafferty, who prefaced with comments by saying he can’t whether a law is a good idea or not due to lobbying rules for non-profits like LawNY, noted that since COVID began the eviction situation statewide had been chaotic with the eviction moratorium expiring and being renewed again. Some tenants owe as much as $12,000 in back rent and have no idea how they’ll pay it off. At least 75% of cases seen by LawNY are for non-payment of rent, with the remainder being lease violations or termination of month-to-month agreements against the tenant’s wishes.

There is an emergency rental assistance program (ERAP) that tenants and landlords can apply to (either can apply, but the other involved party must consent), and after major issues delivering payouts early on, the money is starting to flow. Over 80 assistance payments have now been made in Tompkins County and more are underway. Another major issue is that Ithaca’s lack of affordable housing drives many lower-income tenants to far-flung areas, or pushes them to rent units that aren’t in compliance with safety codes. With few places they can afford, they’re at the mercy of their landlords.

McCafferty also stressed that the city court is very different from neighboring town and village courts. Town and village justices, elected locally in their town with no legal background requirement, generally aren’t as well-versed in the 2019 housing law and may not be aware of the provisions and protections of that law. Also, while many landlords have legal representation in eviction proceedings, most tenants don’t. Two-thirds evicted locally are women, and half of those evicted are people of color.

“I have a question. Since COVID, and the laws about not having to pay rent during COVID, have the eviction situations for renters changed in the amounts of money they owe? Have they become unmanageable for people since they haven’t paid for so long? Is there enough money coming to solve those problems, where there’s significant money owed in rent?” Asked non-committee councilmember George McGonigal (D-1st).

“I can only speak for those who come to us, but the amounts are much greater than I’ve ever seen. At the same time, the amount of rent people are being asked to pay is greater than I’ve ever seen. When I was in Geneva, I never saw more than $1,000/month rent. Here, it’s pretty much all my clients. There’s a moratorium on evictions, but people are still liable for the rent. It’s almost impossible for most of our tenants to save that rent money,” said McCafferty.

The ERAP program can pay up to a year of back rent, but it requires the tenant an application and a landlord to agree that the amount is owed is correct, and a number of them will not agree with each other. A landlord must also agree to allow the tenant to stay in the unit for the following 12 months unless they choose to move or violate the lease, and keep the rent stable during that time. A tenant could get caught up via ERAP, stop paying afterward, and be evicted for the more recent lack of payment.

Overall, McCafferty painted a troubling picture with a number of potentially major harmful outcomes if not addressed soon. The PEDC was appreciative of McCafferty’s time and asked if he might sit in to answer questions later in the meeting; as this writeup shows, this is a pretty complicated topic, and in this meeting, they were only just starting to delve into it.

Right to Renewal Legislation Presentation

The PEDC was given a second presentation last night from the Ithaca Tenants Union regarding right to renewal legislation. Right to renewal legislation is a section of good cause eviction law that entitles renters to a renewal lease unless the landlord can substantiate a valid reason (the “good cause”) for not offering lease renewal. We’ll delve more into the good cause eviction law later in this article.

ITU’s Genevieve Rand explained what the ITU does and how it represents tenants when negotiating with landlord, and Rand was joined by her colleague Taylor Moon, who services the ITU hotline for tenant disputes and questions about their rights. Rand explained that many of the calls focus on fears of displacement and non-renewal, as well as concerns with harassment, repairs and safety issues, and issues with security deposits. The ITU also expressed frustration from long-time tenants for properties slated for reconstruction, like the Northside townhomes, as well as reports that other lower-income tenants were being evicted elsewhere in Ithaca for telling authorities about safety issues in their housing.

Turning to the legislation at hand, the ITU said that the focus of the tenants’ rights legislation was a redistribution of power from landlord to tenant and giving tenants power as a class of people, so that they had negotiating rights when engaging with landlords. “We would never as a class give up the opportunity to have more power. Our lives would never be worse off because we have more power,” said Rand. She also pushed for a stipulation that any property that involves non-renewal due to renovation or redevelopment of the property require compensation to the tenants.

Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) asked if “right to counsel” would be helpful, but Rand downplayed its usefulness, saying that in the ITU’s experience, many tenants want to avoid eviction courts out of fear of being in a court, and that the stigma of being a “problem tenant” because they went to court would make it harder for them to rent in the future.

Before moving on, Rand said she had one last request for the legislation before PEDC, which was to remove a stipulation where eviction is permitted due to unreasonable prohibition of access to the unit by the tenant. Councilor Brock pointed out that landlords do have a right to access a unit with reasonable notice, and there was some debate on what reasonable means, with McCafferty chiming in to say that a landlord’s word in court is often given more weight than a tenant’s. Clearly, this was going to be a point of continued debate as the legislation was brought forward.

“This is a draft, it’s a work in progress. We’d be voting on it tonight for circulation to the public and for people to weigh in. This is an ongoing negotiation,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).

IURA Inlet Island RFP Clarifications

Next up on the agenda were Action Items to send on to the full Common Council. Up for a vote was a “clarification” for the proposed redevelopment of a city-owned parking lot on Inlet Island along the 400 Block of Taughannock Bouelvard. Readers may recall that three projects were submitted for the RFP earlier this year, with the status of preferred developer awarded to the team helmed by businessmen Jeff Rimland and Steve Flash and their “At the Helm” proposal.

Quick refresher here, the $40 million Finger Lakes Development plan consists of two five-story buildings, called “the Stays,” a 78-90 bed extended-stay ‘hometel’ concept, and “the Anchor,” would be developed in partnership with INHS and provide 50-56 affordable housing units (30-120 percent area median income, but mostly in the 50-60 percent AMI range). The Finger Lakes Boating Center would be retained, its roof outfitted with solar panels to create a renewable energy-generating “microgrid” on Inlet Island. The existing Coast Guard Auxiliary building would remain in place and be improved to serve boaters and provide educational programming.

When the preferred developer status was awarded by Common Council last month, they added a stipulation that the developer “include ground floor active use and maintain the proposed number of affordable housing units.” That’s all well and good, but they never specified which building needs the ground floor active use, or how much, or if active use means retail or a broader enhancement of ground-floor spaces. The developers don’t want to commit ground-level retail they never proposed in the first place, and because in this COVID-19 era, speculative retail space makes it harder for a project to get a construction loan. Both the affordable housing and “hometel” have low-traffic lobby spaces on their ground floors.

With that in mind, the development team and the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s staff are requesting that the stipulation be clarified with language to allow for ground floor active uses in the Coast Guard Auxiliary Building, and allow for food truck and kiosk vendors as well as “paddle-powered watercraft-focused activities”. The added affordable housing stipulation was not a major concern.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) said she didn’t have a strong opinion about it since she didn’t vote for the added language at Common Council’s meeting last month. Lewis said likewise and that she would be fine with the clarified language, but asked that they keep the component of the stipulation that there be no permitted reduction in affordable housing units. Her colleague McGonigal disagreed, because he wants a smaller project by the time it gets submitted for site plan review, and not allowing for fewer housing units makes that less likely.

“I was the one who proposed the inclusion,” said Councilor Brock. “My concern is the proposed project does not, in my mind, adequately take advantage of or enhance the waterfront area to support residents and visitors. It doesn’t provide any kind of vibrancy along the waterfront. I was looking for a ground-floor active-use integrated into the project, and I am concerned that…food trucks don’t do the waterfront justice.”

“I would encourage the Common Council to not put too many overly restrictive conditions at this stage,” said IURA Economic Development Chair Chris Proulx.

“My big concern with is has to do with the quality of the waterfront. I’ve seen a tendency in this town where something is built for active use or recreational use and it’s a dead zone. I see with the backside of Island Health and Fitness, there’s nothing to drive them there. I think this is really important, we all want a vibrant, active waterfront,” said Murtagh.

That said, Murtagh was willing to give the IURA and developer the benefit of flexibility. The clarification passed 3-1 with Brock opposed, and will head before the full Common Council next month.

Good Cause Eviction Legislation

Next up were items to vote to circulate, meaning they go out for comment to staff and the public before coming back to PEDC for a vote to send to Common Council. 

Starting off this section of the agenda is “Good Cause Eviction Legislation”, also known as “right to renew”. This is a rather thorny and dense topic, so conveniently the agenda includes a Q&A for common questions – let’s review. What good cause eviction legislation does is prevent landlords from removing tenants without first obtaining an order from an Ithaca City Court judge, that step would be codified into law. It also entitles a tenant to a renewal lease and protection from an unconscionable rate hike (defined as 1.5x consumer price inflation) unless the landlord can substantiate a good reason for termination or non-renewal. The law would apply to all rentals in buildings with five or more units that the owner does not live in. Sublets and employer-provided housing are excluded.

Eviction can still take place if rent hasn’t been paid, a “substantive lease violation” has occurred, criminal or illegal activity, nuisance behavior or harassment of neighbors or other tenants, or illegal use of the unit, say for instance the tenant turned it into an AirBnB when the lease says that’s not allowed. This does not prevent a landlord from increasing rent, but does prevent eviction if the landlord has unjustifiably increased the rent beyond a tenant’s ability to pay. Improvements and repairs to a unit are justifiable reasons for a rent increase, and a city court judge is allowed to decide if a rent increase is actually justifiable.

This legislation is designed to complement the state’s 2019 HSTPA housing law. A landlord cannot evict a tenant for filing a complaint about a property code violation. Locking a tenant out or using force to evict a tenant is illegal. A tenant must be notified if rent will go up more than 5% or if the lease will not be renewed. Security deposits are limited to one month’s rent and provides legal avenues if it is not returned promptly after a tenant moves out. The city law would codify the circumstances under which eviction is allowed and mandates approval from city court before it can be carried out.

In short, the legislation would require landlords to offer a renewal lease to tenants in good standing and prevent major, arbitrary rent hikes. Barring a violation, a landlord must give five months’ notice that a lease will not be renewed, and a tenant can use the following two months to choose whether to consent. Proponents tout the law as an effort to provide tenant protections in absence of rent control laws, while opponents have concerns the policy would place an excessive burden on small landlords. Another drawback is that it may unintentionally incentivize AirBnBs or make it harder for tenants with checkered pasts to be able to rent a unit in the first place.

Frequent visitor Theresa Alt spoke to PEDC to ask for modifications to address Ithaca-specific issues, such as the showing of units on East Hill in the fall prior to August move-ins, and also pushed for public, government-owned housing. Also, the ITU had their comments during their presentation earlier in the meeting.

As before, the Ithaca legislation is modeled on Albany’s. “I think we all recognize that we’re facing severe gentrification in Ithaca, and a number of our tenants are facing dramatic rent increases on a year-to-year basis,” said Brock. “It’s about providing housing stability to families. 75% of our population faces that uncertainty year after year.”

“In theory I do not believe the state can force one party to renew a contract with another party. I just don’t get that,” said Fleming, as she stated her opposition to the proposal. “I know we’re just voting to circulate and I suppose there’s no harm in that, but I can’t imagine I would vote to send to council.”

Councilor Lewis stressed that this was to provide protection from unscrupulous landlords. “I have reservations about a presumption that a contract could be renewed. There could be a number of reasons why a landlord could decide to not renew a lease. I think we’ll be talking about this right up to (full Common) Council. If landlords know that there are legal protections to tenants, it can be a re-balancing effect, that would be my expectation and my hope.”

“The way I see this legislation is not as the state stepping in, but the government saying ‘these are conditions in which a landlord cannot renew a release’, and spelling it out. What this is getting after is, and we have seen this here, tenants who have been in their home for 20 years, and then with just a few months’ notice, they have to uproot their lives because a landlord has decided to renovate or sell a property. At the very least, what this will do is give tenants a knowledge of their rights and a way to pursue their rights in court,” said Chair Murtagh. “I’ll be voting for it tonight.”

The motion to circulate the legislation for public comment passed unanimously 4-0, and will come back before PEDC next month. They can take a vote at that time to sent to the full council for approval as early as November.

Right to Counsel Legislation

Separate but related to Good Cause Eviction legislation, this legislation mandates the presence of eviction court monitors to provide support and legal representation for tenants in eviction cases, especially those in which the landlord may be retaliating because the tenant reported unsafe conditions. The Ithaca Eviction/Displacement Defense Project, managed by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County and launched in January 2020, works with a Cornell Law Fellow and legal interns, LawNY, and HSC’s Housing Specialists to provide representation and guidance. It also provides a hotline (Ithaca Tenants Resources) so that renters can receive those pro bono legal resources and have a legal team stand with them in city court.

The discussion opened with councilor Lewis, who is shepherding this proposal through PEDC. She noted that few tenants have legal representation in court, and stated that she saw it as a needed part of the legislative protections. Funding would come from either dedicated resources from COVID-19 American Rescue Plan dollars, as well as trainings and education from both Cornell Law and LawNY.

“What is the financial component of this?” Asked Brock. “Staffing resources, funding? What exactly is the city commitment to this? If financial, is this coming out of the operating budget?”

“It’s a difficult one to answer because we don’t know the scope of the issue given the eviction moratorium,” said Lewis. “But there are already resources being utilized that the city is not paying for, using grants and pro bono work. I cannot be definite about resources. We could be referring people the the HSC or LawNY, but it could be advantageous to dedicate some funding out of the city budget so that we can better understand the scope of the issue and its costs in the future. It is not intended that the full burden would fall upon the city.”

“I would hope a final version of this would have more specificity to go along with this resolution,” replied Brock.

“It’s kinda like what we did with Green New Deal,” added Murtagh. “We didn’t know where the money would come from, but we recognized the problem and have this aspiration. I don’t think the money has to exclusively come from the city, there are groups we can partner with, and grant funding.”

“I don’t think what we’re looking it declares a right to free counsel. I think we need to do what we can to promote the accessibility of attorneys to people, but we need to be clear about how we plan to do that,” said Fleming. “I also reject to the stated numbers of rent-burdened in the resolution, because many of those are students with no income. I will vote to circulate, but we should ask staff to write a right to counsel law based on the law of another city’s that we admire.”

The primary concern remains about funding mechanisms for the program, but the PEDC was fine with circulating the legislation for public comment. The vote to circulate passed unanimously 4-0.

Court Street Rezoning

Last on the agenda for discussion and potential recirculation was a proposed rezoning on Court Street, specifically the north side of the blocks between North Geneva and Linn Streets (100 Block West – 300 Block East). The recirculation is because several comment were received to include R-3a properties on the 400 Block of North Cayuga Street in the proposal as well.

Currently, the blocks have R-3a zoning, which used to do allow commercial business use but no longer does. For the small businesses in these buildings, that means any attempt to expand or renovate to allow handicap accessibility triggers a mountain of red tape because they’re non-conforming, even though many have been in their spaces for decades. After several instances of this issue recently, city planners are suggesting a rezoning to B-1a, which is physically similar but allows business uses. The south half of these blocks is already B-1a. The biggest change is 50% lot coverage allowed in B-1a vs. 35% in R-3a, but these blocks are in the DeWitt Park Historic District, so any expansions would still need to be approved by the ILPC.

Another part of the rezoning is the elimination of the Courthouse Special Use zone and changing that over to B-1a. Once again, the zoning constraints are physically similar between CSU and B-1a, but it will reduce red tape while maintaining consistency with the other blocks. It also helps Tompkins County when they figure out what they want to do with the 400 Block of North Tioga over the next few years.

Several property owners in the affected area wrote in to the PEDC in favor of the zoning change; the general sentiment was that they don’t want to change the feel of their neighborhood, but that the tightening of the R-3a zoning over the years meant that the zoning no longer fit the mixed-use character of their neighborhood, and B-1a was more fitting because it accommodated those mixed business and residential uses.

“I don’t think the changes would spark a huge change,” said Planner Megan Wilson.

“I think we’re hearing from property owners frustrated that they have to go to the BZA for their property. But we haven’t heard from residents,” said Chair Murtagh.

Fleming said she had received a call from former city councilor Susan Cummings opposed to changing the zoning because there was an oversupply of office space and it might negatively impact the housing supply. Planner Wilson said that if there an oversupply of office space, then a business would probably reuse an existing space rather than convert a residence. Wilson added that the driving factor of this rezoning is that these few blocks have a significant number of nonconforming properties that were grandfathered in because the original R-3a zoning became more restrictive over time and no longer permitted the existing businesses.

City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish encouraged Murtagh to reach out to his residential constituents (it’s in his ward) to see if there were concerns, and Murtagh said he did not expect much given that it was a small area. The vote to recirculate passed unanimously 4-0, to come back before PEDC next month.

Energy Efficiency Retrofitting RFP

This was put on the agenda at the last second as an action item to send to council, but because it was put on the agenda late, members asked to move it to a discussion item and then potentially vote on it next month.

As Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres noted in his opening statement, the city of Ithaca and its denizens produce about 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, about the same as 100,000 cars. 40% of those emissions are from buildings in Ithaca, because many of Ithaca’s older buildings are highly inefficient and rely on furnaces, water heaters and appliances that use natural gas, propane and fuel oil. There is heat pump technology, but it’s not affordable for many lower-income households, and the technology isn’t feasible for heavy-duty commercial, industrial and research spaces.

This is essentially a large-scale program to help city property owners upgrade their buildings with heat pumps and other more energy-efficient equipment. Those systems aren’t cheap, and to address the affordability issue, there needs to be “economies of scale”, bulk purchasing of heat pump equipment for a 20-30% discount. It also requires a lot of money upfront, likely through a green bond and state incentives. They would also need to upgrade about 1,000 homes and 500 commercial buildings (25% of the city’s building stock) to achieve the necessary economies of scale in phase one. The cost would be about $50,000 per home and $70,000 per commercial building, or about $100 million upfront. After speaking with contractors and suppliers, Aguirre-Torres said private equity investment banks may be a source of funding, structured in a way where people would pay for their renovations with a low-cost loan over 15 years, and managed separately from the city’s operating budget.

The RFP for the “Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program” seeks a to-be-hired Program Manager to run the program. They would be tasked with brokering the financing from the private equity groups, and design structured long-term, zero-cost and low-cost lending and operating leasing programs. Buildings would have their energy efficiency assessed prior to any loan so as to make sure they’d actually benefit from the renovations. The program is designed to give priority in lending to low-moderate income homeowners, and work with local construction contractors selected through a competitive bidding process.

Documentation added to the PEDC Agenda at the last minue suggests three firms submitted applications to be program manager, with Brooklyn-based BlocPower scoring the highest.

“Say you are a homeowner and want to participate, you said $50,000 on average for the improvements, on a 15-year loan payback. How do we ensure they pay back this loan? Is this a lien against their property?” Asked Brock. According to Aguirre-Torres and Brock’s further clarification, applicants would be expected to take an individual loan with costs guaranteed by NYSERDA in the case they are no longer able to pay.

Quite frankly, Aguirre-Torres’ explanation was at times difficult to follow. The choice to move this from action item to discussion looked very good in retrospect. Given that “private equity” is a dirty phrase in local advocacy groups, some greater clarity and transparency would be welcome. The conversation will continue next month.

Other Business

For those of who you love talking about AirBnBs and other short-term rentals, expect it to come before the PEDC in the next few months. Councilor Fleming raised the topic as something that had come up on her neighborhood’s listserve, and it had fallen off the radar in March 2020 when the pandemic erupted locally, but Planning Director Cornish stated it would likely be able to make it back for renewed discussion leading to regulation starting around the end of the year (and coming back every month for as long as needed).

Brian Crandall

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