ITHACA, N.Y.—“Housing is a human right! Fight! Fight! Fight!” and “INHS you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!” were just a few of the various chants from a group protesting Thursday’s eviction hearings outside of Ithaca City Court. 

Members of the Ithaca community and the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU) gathered outside the Ithaca City Court last week in below-freezing temperatures to protest 12 eviction hearings scheduled for that morning. The gatherings have been a regular occurrence over the last few months, with an increased intensity as the eviction moratorium in New York State was allowed to lapse in January.

“Two days ago, I was served with a notice of non-renewal of my lease and a notice that if I don’t leave my house in 10 days, my landlords will file for eviction against me. I am up-to-date on my rent, I have not damaged my unit and yet, they want me gone. I’ve made a practice of challenging the power that landlords have over tenants and as a result, the way that the law is set up, they are free to kick me out of my home and onto the street at their whim,” activist Genevieve Rand said to the gathered crowd and protestors.

She went on to cite a 1948 newspaper clipping from the Ithaca Journal that said, “The acuteness of Ithaca’s housing shortage is expected to become more widely understood with the advent of warm weather, according to those closely associated with the problem this winter.” While decades have passed, the situation has remained gravely similar, Rand indicated.

Despite the recent sub-zero temperatures this winter, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, New York State’s eviction moratorium, expired Jan. 15, 2022, ceasing the protections tenants were relying on for security in their housing, especially while COVID-19 cases continue.

Sensing the coming moratorium end, some local housing advocates, most prominently the Ithaca Tenants Union, have pushed for good-cause eviction (or “right to renew”) legislation in the City of Ithaca, though the effort is currently stalled at Common Council. Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate and a candidate for New York governor, appeared in Ithaca to endorse the legislation earlier this week.

“I know we’re all cold here. But after two hours, we get to go home and stay warm. Many of our neighbors are at risk of losing that privilege,” said Fourth Ward Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, an avowed good-cause eviction supporter. “Houselessness is not a fact of life; evictions are not a foregone conclusion, they are choices — policy choices. The governor letting the expiration date of the eviction moratorium happen is a policy choice. Our city’s hesitation to pass the right to renew leases is a policy choice. It is the wrong choice.”

On Thursday, the hearings were largely postponed with two-week adjournments due to defendant tenants filing Emergency Rent Assistance Program (ERAP) applications, which usually take about two weeks to turn around. During this process, individuals cannot be evicted because of an expired lease or for failure to pay rent during the pandemic, which provides at least slightly extended temporary protection. The ERAP program allows landlords to recover back rent without removing tenants from their units.

One of the cases adjourned for two weeks while waiting for ERAP is that of Lamaiah McCoy, who was at the hearing with her mom, Melissa Reeves. Reeves had previously lived in the unit McCoy now lives in, and McCoy is currently in litigation with her landlord Jarrell Puryear, who McCoy said she has had issues with including negligent maintenance upkeep and unannounced visits to the property.

“[The landlord] didn’t give me 24-hour notice, call me, text me, none of that,” McCoy said in an interview. “Certain days, it would seem off to me why he was even at my house, after the guy had fixed [the bathtub], the next day he came to my house to argue with me after I told them I would get somebody else to fix it — they had left my bathroom with literally no handles to shower with, no water on. I couldn’t even wash my dishes or cook my food for two and a half months.”

Puryear said he and his business partner Joshua Bower had not been aware that McCoy had taken over the unit Reeves had been renting and that they had only found out when they stopped by to try to communicate about missed rent.

Another tenant who was there for an eviction hearing, Nicholas Desystemizer, said he had taken a deal to move out of his apartment by the end of February. He has been living in the apartment for the last four years, but the original owner of the house decided to sell it and the new buyer went back and forth on whether or not they wanted tenants, ultimately serving Desystemizer with an eviction notice.

“There aren’t many protections offered for tenants who live in a house that the landlord decided to sell,” he said, also noting that depending on when a lease ends, housing may be near impossible for him to find if students are in town.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...