ITHACA, N.Y. — Your pre-holiday city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting was short but dense, as members of Common Council dived into renters’ rights legislation once again. Keep on reading for last night’s summary, and for those who like to look at the agenda, a copy can be found here.

Prohibition of Eviction without Good Cause Law

There were only two substantive items on the December agenda, both of which were “Discussion” items, meaning neither agenda topic was up for a vote. First up was the “Prohibition of Eviction without Good Cause Law’, which has been under discussion by city staff and officials over the past few months, and not without its share of controversy.

The legislation, written by Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), uses Albany’s Good Cause Legislation as a framework for the city of Ithaca’s. Good Cause Law 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.

The proposed law does not stop eviction completely. If the tenant violates the terms of the lease, the Good Cause legislation’s rules, or local and state laws have been broken, a tenant can still be evicted. Secondly, as the city stresses in its summary, eviction is not the same thing as lease termination or non-renewal. Termination occurs when the landlord ends the rental agreement and asks the tenant to vacate the rental unit. A tenant can have their tenancy terminated and move out without being evicted. Eviction is the actual court process and lawsuit that has a tenant removed from the property if they fail to leave.

A potential complication is that Albany is being sued by a group of landlords over its Good Cause law, who argue that Good Cause legislation violates several state laws that limit local government involvement in regulating rent and evictions. The lawsuit further alleges that such laws violate a process set out in the state law regarding rent stabilization. A court determination of the legality of Albany’s law could directly impact Ithaca’s proposed legislation as well, because if the court says only the state can pass such laws, then Ithaca’s legislation would be prohibited too. The city of Beacon stopped pursuing its Good Cause Law because they expected Albany’s to be invalidated by the courts. Side note, Albany passed its law, but it has not gone into effect.

As one might imagine, just about everyone who’s written or spoken to the city regarding the proposed law hates it. Some of the speakers and letter writers are landlords (none of the big firms emailed, these are mostly local homeowners who have side rentals) who feel the proposal significantly burdens and disadvantages them, while others are local tenants who feel the law gives landlords way too much leeway. To try and politely sum it up, I’ll use a quote from Teresa Helpert Deschanes, who runs co-op style rental housing in the city: “I think in theory such an ordinance is a good idea, although I think it is probably exceedingly difficult to write it well.”

To be clear, contrary to some of the public comments, this is not rent control, at least as New York State defines it. The legislation doesn’t control the actual monthly rent amount one pays. It is a form of rent stabilization since it limits annual rent hikes on that rental amount.

The legislation was put on hold due to the courts process. Councilor Brock pointed out the lawsuit and suggested “waiting anxiously” until the state court issues an opinion before moving forward with anything, and working with local state legislators if it has to go the state route. Frankly, if that’s what has to happen, it’s probably easy to get the support of local Assemblywoman Anna Kelles (D-125th). The question is if they can get less progressive Democratic legislators on board, since Good Cause advocates have yet to find a single Republican state lawmaker in support.

Renewal of Rental Agreements Notifications

This is the first PEDC legislation submitted by the new fourth ward councilor, Patrick Mehler. The ordinance revisions specifically does two things. The first has to deal with the required length of time for a notification to tenants by a landlord. Currently, if a landlord wants to renews a lease, wants to begin showing the unit to prospective tenants, or enter into an agreement with new tenants, they need to give 60 days’ notice. The legislation proposed to increase that to 180 days’ notice. The second change is that it doesn’t allow the tenant and landlord to mutually waive the notice.

This is intended so new renters don’t feel rushed to decide whether or not to stay after only two months after moving into a unit – it would also effectively push off the fall Collegetown neighborhood student housing rush to a late winter date. Worth noting, Mehler’s fourth ward is largely comprised by Collegetown. The second change about the waiver is because some Collegetown landlords force the students to sign a waiver as part of their initial lease, and so they’re effectively coerced into it. This change is intended to stop that practice.

From public speakers and letter writers, there weren’t any fans of this proposal either. Landlords felt this was way too long of a time, and some written comments from tenants felt it would be too constraining. Some offered compromises, like the 90 day period suggested by resident and landlord Sonja Sandstrom in public comment.

“Somehow figure out a distinction between the longer-term tenants…and the student housing. It’s a kettle of a different color. Most people are intelligent and figure out what they want,” said local lawyer Ray Schlather.

Mehler contended he had spoken with hundreds of Collegetown tenants as well as a substantial number of Collegetown landlords, and the tenants were largely in favor, while the landlords had refused to budge from the current 60 days’ notice. “This (legislation) gives people a chance to live in their home and live where they’re renting,” said Mehler.

“I agree with this in theory. We tried to fix this years ago and waive this clause. I think we should make it stricter so that landlords can’t pressure tenants to renew a month or two into their leases,” said Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd).

She did, however, criticize the part of the resolution critical of Cornell building for building more housing in the “whereas” statements. “I am grateful for the increase in on-campus housing at Cornell. My dream has been that some of the houses converted to student rentals would re-convert to owner-occupied homes or homes for renting professionals, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said councilor Fleming. Her colleague Laura Lewis (D-5th) said she hoped that more Cornell housing would force downward pressure on rents in the city.

Councilor Brock fell in the same position as Fleming. She believed that people shouldn’t be rushed into decided on a new lease or not two months after moving in. But she had reservations with the way the legislation was written. Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) expressed concerns that the legislation would simply shift the summer-fall Collegetown leasing cycle to a shorter, potentially more chaotic spring period, and that it could affect students studying abroad in the spring.

Mehler said he was fine with removing the ‘whereas’ statements, and suggested the possibility of staggered time frames, so that it’s not when the lease starts, but instead the countdown until lease renewal negotiations can start begins when the tenants pick up their keys and move in. This was suggested because some leases start in June but students don’t move in until August. In response to Murtagh, Mehler said that shifting to spring would give a window to explore all their options, and students study abroad in both fall and spring semesters.

Murtagh did offer to put it up to a vote to circulate, to allow a month for comments from the public and city officials and staff and allowing a vote in January. The superfluous “whereas” statements (all but the first and last “whereas” statements) have been removed, and the numbers are still being played with on whether or not to stagger the time period.

But while the numbers are being debated, the PEDC was willing to circulate as a conceptual idea for further input and expressed support-in-concept, but most aren’t ready to vote on it until the impacts are better understood. The vote to circulate passed unanimously, 5-0.

On a final note, this was Chair Murtagh’s and Councilor Fleming’s final meeting as electeds. Their fellow councilors and planning staff had nothing but well wishes and praise for their departing colleagues. I can say personally that both Fleming and Murtagh have always been responsive and unfailingly polite. The staff of the Voice wish them both the best of luck in the next chapters on their lives’ journeys.

Should a law be passed to establish a tenant’s right to an automatic lease renewal? Good-cause evictions laws are being considered at the local and state levels. A complex problem, but WRFI and the Ithaca Voice are working together to help the community understand this vital issue. Go to ithacavoice.com for in depth coverage of the proposed laws and tune in to WRFI Tuesday, March 29 at 6pm to join a call-in Community Conversation featuring panelists, journalists and you! Learn more about this collaboration between the Ithaca Voice and WRFI at WRFI.org, and add your voice to the discussion March 29, 2022 at 6!

Brian Crandall

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