ITHACA, N.Y.—The Planning and Economic Development Committee discussed what could be one of the largest pieces of legislation in the City of Ithaca’s recent history for tenant protections on Wednesday, voting to circulate the bill and setting up what’s sure to be a month of fervent feedback.

Good Cause eviction legislation, also known as “Right to renew,” prevents 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. You can read about the topic in last month’s PEDC summary here.

Last night’s discussion had a vote to circulate, which allows the legislation to be published for public comment and sent out to city officials and electeds for comment and further discussion before coming back to PEDC for a vote to send to Common Council. 

Late last week, Councilor Cynthia Brock submitted her own modifications, allowing for evictions if entry is refused to landlords doing inspections, reintroduces a provision to allow lease termination when a property is sold (provided at least one month of rent is paid back and the security deposit is returned), and allows a landlord the choice of not to renew a lease—not quite the same as the legal process eviction entails, but still a lease termination. This has drawn the ire of the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU), which has described Brock’s proposal as an effort to subvert the entire intention of “Right to renew.”

Brock’s plan keeps the city’s provision that marketing a unit cannot begin within two months of a lease beginning, and gives a 45-day period for the tenant to decide. In the revised proposal, a waiver that some Collegetown landlords currently offer so they can start marketing within the first 60 days of a new lease would be eliminated, meaning they’d have to wait the two months. The ITU had pursued a plan asking for five months’ notice from a landlord that a lease will not be renewed.

Further complicating matters was a memo from the city of Beacon in the Hudson Valley, which until recently was considering their own Good Cause eviction legislation. Last month, Beacon officials determined that any local law (including Albany’s, on which Ithaca’s is modeled) would likely be litigated and invalidated because the state legislature has affirmed regulatory control of Landlord/Tenant laws. In other words, Ithaca has no authority to make a Good Cause eviction law and if enacted, it would be nullified by state courts because New York State government has taken pre-emptive authority over the matter.

As one might imagine, this was the primary topic of interest during the public comment period, with most speakers promoting the Good Cause eviction legislation and angry about the modifications proposed by Brock. Local resident Sarah Curless, an ITU member, called Brock’s approach “soft eviction” and resident Randall Frank called the modified proposal “eviscerated.” Ithaca Tenants Union representative Genevieve Rand urged the PEDC to return to the original September version of the legislation. Several other speakers, such as local landlords Kayla Lane and Grace Petrisin, stated that they felt the legislation was ineffective and an unfair burden.

Brock was bothered that some speakers had accused her of ill intent, and sought to make clear that she was working on behalf of multiple stakeholders with the input of other council members, and that the process allows for amendments if desired. Her colleagues also came to her defense.

“Even if you do disagree with what she’s proposing, [Cynthia] does deserve credit for moving this legislation forward,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh.

Murtagh did stress at the start of discussion that he wanted to host a public hearing on the legislation next month if they voted to circulate. Brock opened by saying that she looked at various models across the country when writing her proposal. The inclusion of the regular inspection language was to accommodate Section 8 guidelines, so that landlords could inspect spaces for potential issues prior to Section 8 inspectors checking the properties out. Brock added that the city of Albany’s legislation does allow the sale of property as a good cause eviction, while Seattle’s version allows for payment to the tenant as compensation for the lease termination.

“I would like to see the prohibition of eviction without good cause pass, and I hope some of these amendments would get your support,” said Brock.

“It’s already the case that a landlord can’t evict a tenant without a good cause so I already object to the title,” said Fleming. “Not having a written lease is not sufficient grounds for a landlord to ask a tenant to leave. So it is a right to renew?”

“If you’ve done everything right, you’ve abided by the lease and behaved in accordance of the law, you will be entitled to a renewal lease with a reasonable rate of (rent) increase,” Brock replied.

Murtagh asked about the Beacon memo. Chiming in for this part of the meeting was City Attorney Ari Lavine. He explained Beacon’s findings and summary, and that a letter requesting an opinion on the matter has been submitted by Beacon to the New York State Attorney General’s office. Shapiro said a number of cities and mayors have spoken about their concern, and that an opinion is likely to be provided by the AG’s office in December or January, though no guarantees.

“A member of the Ithaca Tenants Union sent me a memo from a school of law rebutting the memo […] I do think it makes sense to wait and see what the attorney general is going to say, but I do want to point out that there’s a diversity of opinion in the legal community about this,” commented Murtagh.

“I don’t agree there’s a diversity of the opinion in the municipal law legal community. I’ve had just about everyone say to me there’s a pre-emption issue, that it is not within the authority of municipalities to adopt Good Cause eviction legislation. It would be wise to wait to adopt before the word of the attorney general,” said Shapiro.

At Murtagh’s suggestion, it was decided to circulate the draft from last month because it had never been circulated, bring that version to public hearing next month, and at his colleague Lewis’s suggestion, it was decided to circulate Brock’s proposed amendments as well, so that people can comment on both versions of the proposed legislation. From there they can decide to wait to see what the AG says or if they should then send to Common Council. Basically, the plan is to move something forward, while noting the possibility that New York State may pull the rug out from under the city.

The vote to circulate both the draft legislation and the potential amendments passed unanimously.

Correction: The article previously stated that the the originally-drafted Right to Renew plan proposed in Ithaca contained a provision mandating a five-month termination of lease notice from landlords to tenants. While the Ithaca Tenants’ Union asked for this provision, it was in neither the original proposal or councilor Brock’s suggested modifications.

Brian Crandall

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