This is a letter to the editor written by Second Ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen. To submit letters to the editor, send them to tips@ithacavoice.com.

On Wednesday, the Planning and Economic Development Committee (one of two City of Ithaca Common Council standing committees) is considering the “Prohibition of Eviction without Good Cause” (read the meeting agenda here). Also known as “just cause eviction” or “right to renew” by local tenants’ rights advocates, this form of tenant protection prevents arbitrary, retaliatory, or discriminatory evictions by establishing that landlords can only evict renters for specific reasons—“good causes”—such as non-payment of rent or destruction of the property.

While New York State and several of its municipalities have only recently begun considering and passing good cause eviction laws, my home state of New Jersey has had this protection since before I was born (and even before my parents arrived in the U.S. and rented in the Garden State). Enacted in 1974, the Anti-Eviction Act has provided New Jersey’s residents with stability and staggeringly low eviction rates compared to the rest of the country.

This has not hurt the rental market: 36% of households rent, almost identical to the national average. Lots of colleges, military bases, and a generally diverse population ensure a strong supply of people who want or need to rent. Landlords still prosper.

I should know. I’m a landlord.

My wife and I left New Jersey during the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. Underwater on our mortgage, we had little choice but to rent out our townhouse. It hasn’t been easy. Managing from afar is difficult and my tenants have made mistakes. They’ve paid late (and New Jersey has specific rules about how that’s handled too). There was an incident with boiling hot dogs which, long story short, led to the fire department battering the front door in. I could go on.

But I worked with them every time and now we have a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. They love the place and I feel secure knowing my bills will be paid.

Most landlords I talk to about one tenant protection or another will bring up similar stories of working with their tenants, which is why I can say with confidence that good landlords have nothing to fear from good cause eviction legislation. But the protection such a law provides is essential for preventing housing discrimination. 

Last week Common Council guaranteed legal counsel at eviction court in spirit and (much more importantly) in the budget. A Right to Counsel is a crucial protection against discrimination, as my neighbor Carl Feuer pointed out in a recent essay and as Matthew Desmond writes about in the Pulitzer-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. But it’s only one part of an effective shield. 

Right to Counsel will only cover a fraction of housing displacement cases. A study of American Housing Survey data by Desmond and his colleague at Princeton’s Eviction Lab indicates informal evictions (e.g., non-renewal, intimidation, significant rent increases) are 5.5 times more prevalent in causing forced moves than formal (court-ordered) evictions. 

In another paper, Desmond and other researchers uncover racial and other biases that lead to eviction. The authors found that “controlling for race, gender, and arrears amount, households with children are more likely to receive an eviction judgment than those without children.” And before you ask, yes, non-discriminatory explanations for the discrepancies are explored, but found to be “incomplete at best.”

We on Common Council take our decisions very seriously. We tend to be deliberate and slow because we know our actions have far-ranging and long-lasting consequences. Part of the beauty of good cause eviction legislation is that our neighbor New Jersey has tested it for 47 years. States like California and Washington are finally now catching up.

In New Jersey the state law was passed after many municipalities passed local protections. We have the opportunity here to promote and shape statewide action by joining Albany, Hudson, and Newburgh in enacting the most protective-as-possible good cause eviction law in Ithaca.

Tenants, share your eviction stories and what you want to see in the legislation at council@cityofithaca.org or by signing up to speak at Wednesday’s public hearing. And fellow landlords, join me in supporting the right thing for our friends and neighbors. 

Ducson Nguyen

City of Ithaca 2nd Ward Alderperson