ITHACA, N.Y.—Landmark legislation that would significantly strengthen tenant rights locally by forcing landlords to provide certain justifications for evictions will have to wait at least another month for further approval.

The Planning and Economic Development Committee, after about three hours of debate, decided to table the measure for a month in order to further review it and potentially further tweak the bill before voting—including holding a Committee of the Whole meeting attached to December’s PEDC meeting to work through the full Common Council’s concerns before deciding to send it on to the council.

Read the full bill, as it was being considered by the committee, here. Or, you can watch the discussion, beginning here.

The good cause eviction bill, also known as right to renew legislation, is aimed at ensuring tenants do not get evicted without a landlord first obtaining an order from a city judge, plus installs protections against certain levels of rent hikes and generally lays out in great detail the circumstances under which an eviction can be executed and when it cannot—among a slew of other tenant protections designed to, in theory, stabilize housing.

Supporters say the legislation, which also provides tenants with a right to renew their leases, is a crucial protection for tenants, especially those from vulnerable populations, particularly in a tenant-heavy market like Ithaca; opponents argue that it’s potentially illegal, a clumsy overreach and would unnecessarily punish landlords and chill the rental market.

The legislation has undergone a seesaw battle of sorts. It initially picked up steam over the summer, eventually making its way to the Planning and Economic Development Committee in September. Then, in October, a competing version was submitted by Alderperson Cynthia Brock, also a PEDC member. That version, which allowed for refusal of inspection by tenants to be considered grounds for eviction, drew backlash from at least a portion of those who had pushed the previous iteration of the bill, saying the changes had neutered the bill’s effectiveness.

On Wednesday, discussion followed a lengthy public comment period. Brock and Committee chair Seph Murtagh both signaled their support for the bill, while acknowledging some changes could be considered. Murtagh reassured landlords that voluntary agreements between them and tenants wouldn’t be impacted, but that non-renewals of leases are a tangible, harmful issue for tenants regardless of whether they are good tenants or not—especially for those who see their housing sold from landlord to landlord.

However, it also provides codified ways for landlords to evict problem tenants, Murtagh said, as he continued to try to sell the legislation to its opponents.

“I do believe that the bar for removing a tenant from their home should be high, it should not necessarily be an easy thing,” Murtagh said. “As many people have pointed out tonight, the relationship between the landlord and the tenant is not an equal one.”

“What we are seeing in Ithaca, and across the nation, is a housing crisis. The cost of housing and the cost of rental units is going up in multiples over people’s income,” Brock said. She further emphasized how rent prices are outpacing income growth, forcing people out of housing. “This is incredibly destabilizing to our community. Of course, we all recognize that the populations that are impacted most severely are minority populations, gender-fluid populations, those who aren’t white and middle-class. […] It results in emotional and health impacts, as this constant fear of destabilization and dislocation looms over them from year to year.”

Brock said those reasons have been used as justification for other states to implement their good cause eviction laws, and that similar motivations exist in Ithaca. She clarified that the bill does not impose “rent control,” but rather “rent stabilization,” capping a yearly rent hike at 1.5x consumer price index (about 6-7 percent increase per year this year, but 2-3 percent increases in years past).

Committee members Laura Lewis and Donna Fleming both said they weren’t comfortable supporting the legislation as is, apparently taking heed to the oft-cited warnings of landlords that it could interfere with renting.

“Yes, there may be other states, other parts of the country, that have good cause legislation, it is not decided in municipalities in New York State,” Lewis said. “My concern about unintended consequences with such legislation: it’s not unreasonable to think that landlords would perhaps introduce more stringent screening processes for tenants out of some fear, founded or unfounded, when landlords would be renting to tenants and understand that they would not have the option to terminate the contract at the end of a lease.”

Fleming, additionally, worried that it symbolized government overreach—though both she and Lewis seemed sympathetic to the intentions of the bill.

“I think it’s sad when the end of a lease comes and the people who want to stay in a place can’t renew, but I’m not sure it’s the role of the state to enforce that they can stay in that particular place,” Fleming said. “I would hope that if they qualify for affordable housing, state organizations would help them do that.”

Fleming did say that she may be interested in re-examining certain tenants rights issues in Ithaca, including the city’s practice of allowing certain landlords to bypass the waiting period for marketing an apartment that has just been leased, and advocated for a working group dedicated to the topic. In speaking in favor of the working group, Fleming said she’s been uncomfortable with the level of vitriol directed at Brock for changes made to the legislation, since Brock has been one of the leading voices on the bill.

Landlords converting to short-term rentals (like Airbnb) or focusing on the shorter-lease student market could be one of the pitfalls of such legislation, Lewis said. She said that the best landlords in town would indeed largely be unaffected by the legislation, as they may already operate under those conditions, but that they could still be impacted by the elimination of the option to non-renew.

Acting as the accidental tie-breaker, Mehler foreshadowed his decision early in the discussion among council members, acknowledging that he hasn’t been able to catch up on the good cause eviction discussion during his time as an appointed member—Mehler was approved as a member of council to fill-in for the departed Steve Smith, representing Ward 4, which is Collegetown.

“Everybody’s been looking at this for months, and I want to be completely up-front and say that I haven’t been,” Mehler said. He didn’t offer an opinion on the bill as it was being considered, opting instead to reserve his opinions until he had more time to examine the bill.

With that in mind, Murtagh said the options then became either going forward with a vote and having the bill likely die in the PEDC due to lack of votes, or table it for the future. Both he and Mehler expressed a desire to keep the bill alive at least for another month.

“Our options are either to let this die in committee, which would not be my preference as I support it, or potentially table the legislation to give more time,” Murtagh said.

“I would not like to see this bill die either, I genuinely want to give it more time,” Mehler said.

The decision was then, eventually, made to push it to next month.

Before all that, public comment was extremely active, predictably, with proponents and opponents both airing out their sides.

Well-known local activist Theresa Alt spoke first in favor of the legislation, while also asking for certain tweaks that would take into consideration the routine “rental season” in Ithaca (since many units are booked the fall before a lease begins because of student renters).

“Tenant-landlords have a symbiotic relationship,” said small-scale landlord Barbara Anger, insisting that more protections be put in the bill for landlords from tenant misbehavior, and overall that there be more balance placed in the bill to help small landlords, differentiating them from larger developers.

Several more local residents spoke in favor of the legislation. Veronica Blascoe, a volunteer with the Ithaca Tenants hotline and a law student at Cornell, talked about how landlords aren’t necessarily “malicious,” but that the power imbalance that exists between tenants and landlords demands strong tenant protections that are codified into law. Jorge DeFendini, who will join Common Council in 2022 after winning his election to represent Ward 4, echoed Blascoe’s points and noted the harm that housing instability can cause on families and children.

Meanwhile, Kayla Lane, a prominent member of the Landlords Association of Tompkins County, argued against the bill as currently formulated and asked that a working group be assembled instead to assess the issue. She was followed by Nathan Lyman, a local attorney who often acts as a representative for Ithaca Renting’s Jason Fane, also opposing.

“The reason for this proposed one-sided legislation is the dramatic and rare occasions when housing providers and residents don’t agree,” Lane said. “That, however, is not the industry standard or norm. Instead, you will stifle the desire to own quality housing in the area.”

Quite a bit of the feedback from the public centered on whether or not the legislation is actually legal under state law for municipalities to enact. Some opponents, or at least those with doubts of its legality, have advocated waiting for a formal opinion from the New York State Attorney General, though in a campaign speech last week current AG Letitia James (who is running for governor) said a good cause bill at the state level should be approved.

She did not appear to offer an opinion on whether or not the same legislative action should be allowed at the individual municipal level. While that last factor means the debate of legality isn’t actually settled until the formal opinion, it should be noted that other municipalities (Albany and Poughkeepsie to name two) are forging ahead with their own good cause eviction legislation. Albany’s bill was the first in the state, and has served as a template, per se, for Ithaca’s bill.

Matt Butler

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