ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a relatively short meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee as we kick off the new year and a new term for Common Councilors. As always, the Voice is here to bring you the summary of last night’s meeting.

Quick note ahead of the report, the membership of the committees always shuffles with each new term, with one councilor (of two) from each of the city’s five wards serving on the PEDC. For this two-year cycle, the roster is as follows:

  • 1st Ward Common Councilor Cynthia Brock (D)
  • 2nd Ward Common Councilor Phoebe Brown (D)
  • 3rd Ward Common Councilor Robert Gearhart (D)
  • 4th Ward Common Councilor Patrick Mehler (D)
  • 5th Ward Common Councilor Laura Lewis (D), as Chair

Other members of the Common Council are always welcome to attend the PEDC’s meeting and give their input, but the five listed above are the only ones who have voting privileges — and as always, a majority vote is required in order for legislation to advance to the full Common Council for a potential vote of final approval and acceptance, whether it be a change in zoning, grant fund disbursement, or whatever else the PEDC might be talking about. This month was a routine policy concurrence and a more complicated and controversial matter regarding the legal code overseeing rental agreements, as we’ll get to in a moment.

For those who like a copy of the agenda to go along with their summary, you can find that here.

Renewal of Rental Agreements Notifications

This is a continuation of legislation first proposed by Common Councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th Ward) last month. 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 renew 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 to the unit’s current tenants. 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. Another batch of letters of concern were received from area landlords ahead of this month’s meeting, with some advocating for more limited changes; for example, realtor Christopher Anagnost suggested a 90-day notice period.

To be fair, advocates for enhanced protections weren’t a fan of the proposal either. In public comment, local resident Sarah Curless of the Ithaca Tenants Union called it an inadequate “band-aid,” and her fellow ITU advocate Genevieve Rand said she didn’t oppose the intent of the law, but said it didn’t have teeth if people can be denied lease renewal for no stated reason (the Rental Agreements legislation does not legislate whatever permitted reasons could be for lease renewal).

Mehler opened by saying that while his proposed legislation was initially conceived from conversations with his college student constituents, it was intended to apply to the broader rental population, and he was open to modifying the proposal. He later added that shortening the notice from 180 was “not what he envisioned,” but he was open to an amendment to 90 days.

Councilor Brock said she was in support or removing the mutual consent waiver, and expressed concerns that virtual showings might be a loophole in the legislation. She also believed that 180 days was too long, but was open to 90 days.

“From many landlords I’ve spoken with…they seem supportive of the 90 days,” Brock said. “It allows more flexibility to have a 90 day notification period, especially with the elimination of the waiver.”

Using screen sharing and Excel, Councilor Gearhart demonstrated with a quick calculator he whipped up that 90 days might be uncomfortably short for leasing that start on June 1st when an academic renter may just be moving in in August right as the period expires, while 180 days may be too much of an ask for landlords if a lease starts in August. Using different time intervals in the calculator, a 120-day period emerged as a potential consensus choice to timing and to balance tenant and landlord needs.

The legal order calls for a vote to amend the legislation to 120 days, a friendly (non-substantive, vote not required) clean up of some of the “whereas” statements, edit the legislation to include prohibition of virtual showings in the initial 120-day period of the lease. and re-circulate the amended legislation for public comment. With a unanimous 4-0 vote (Councilor Brown being absent), the amended legislation will be re-circulated and the PEDC will discuss it again at February’s meeting.

Other Agenda Items

File this under “routine but necessary.” The PEDC also voted this month on “annual lead agency concurrence” with the City of Ithaca’s Planning Department. This is done at the start of every year and basically says that city planners will work on behalf of Common Council for projects in which Common Council is an involved agency in review — basically, every Planned Unit Development that comes up for review, like Chainworks, Carpenter Circle or the Immaculate Conception School redevelopment. Council still has their discussions, but Planning Department staff do the paperwork and analysis for Council to read and inform those discussions. Unsurprisingly, the concurrence vote passed unanimously, and will go before the Common Council for likely final approval next month.

Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas also gave the PEDC a primer on what the Planning and Development Department does and how it works. This was a handy informational presentation (which can be seen in the meeting recording here) for councilors new to the twists and turns of planning and development. This reporter appreciates it too, not just for the refresher, but because the more informed Councilors are about what can and can’t be done, the smoother these writeups will be.

As with many organizations, the department is dealing with a number of vacancies it is trying to fill, and that will slow down some of their work as they have to pass more tasks onto a smaller number of people until new personnel can be hired on and trained up (if you know a young professional with a degree in planning, tell them to take a look at Ithaca). Nicholas noted that the development pipeline looks busy for some time yet, so keep an eye on the Voice and we’ll share them as they go public.

Brian Crandall

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