ITHACA, N.Y. — Sometimes City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meetings are full of passion, and topics that are easy to get a grasp of. Last night was neither. It was generally dense material bogged down in the legal code books, but nevertheless if you’re a renter or a landlord, you’ll want to pay attention as it may affect how your leases work.

Light, dense or somewhere in-between, the Voice is here to bring you the monthly report. Feel free to dig in below, and have a look at the PEDC agenda here.

Tenants Rights Legislation Discussion

The primary topic on last night’s agenda was a non-voting item, a Special Order of Business for presentations on existing tenant protections and proposed tenants rights legislation, bundled under Good Cause legislation and also known as “Right to Renew”, which is currently stalled in state courts. The Cornell University Law School’s Michaela Rossettie Azemi was to give a presentation on the CU Law Practicum, Tenant hotline for assistance, and how CU Law have been assisting tenants in need of help. Law NY’s Keith McCafferty returned to the board to talk about existing statewide tenant protections, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services’ Executive Director, Johanna Anderson, was on tap to talk about tenant protections in affordable housing.

Rossettie Azemi opened with her presentation, which explained their program and its objectives in helping tenants understand and utilize their rights. The calls coming into the hotline, which is manned by law students, have jumped since the eviction ban was lifted. “Many of the calls we’re receiving are related to displacement and loss of housing, they’re not related to eviction papers…the people we’re helping on the hotline might not have housing, someone facing a lack of renewal. The hotline callers we serve might be individuals who “Right to Counsel” doesn’t even reach,” said Rossettie Azemi. Right now, the burden is on the tenant to show that eviction may be retaliatory, while Good Cause legislation would shift the burden of proof that eviction is necessary.

Next was McCafferty with legal non-profit LawNY. McCafferty was noting that like many organizations in this “boomflation” economy, his organization is in desperate need of qualified staff. They have open legal positions and funding, but no one’s applying, and so their ability to provide adequate staffing to Ithaca and other cities is limited.

McCafferty opened by noting that landlords can’t discriminate against Section 8 voucher users, they can’t “blacklist” tenants, and tenants have a right to rent receipts for payment, but enforcement and a tenant’s lack of awareness of their own rights is often the challenge in those situations. McCafferty explained that the legal rights to notice before the termination of a lease and how non-payment eviction cases work – since state renter laws were updated in 2019, the process takes longer and demands a more robust legal and paperwork filing process. LawNY regularly sees tenants being forced out by landlords for complaining about housing quality and needed repairs, with a denial of lease renewal often serving as a “soft” form of eviction.

In Anderson’s segment speaking on behalf of INHS and tenants’ rights in affordable housing. Anderson said that as part of building out and managing their projects, they need to demonstrate compliance with quality of housing and income requirements and abide by Good Cause eviction rules. Tenants have to resubmit income qualification annually to verify they are still eligible for their income-restricted unit. In the event of an eviction, INHS must demonstrate there was good reason to move forward with proceedings, like abuse of other tenants, destruction of property, unlawful activity on-site or non-payment of rent. Things like smoking cigarettes where prohibited or trash pileup issues usually get a notice of violation and attempts to fix, but with those infractions it takes repeated offenses to rise to the level of eviction. Anderson said they do everything they can to avoid evictions, but it is occasionally necessary – since the eviction ban was lifted, no one yet has been evicted from INHS for lack of rent payment.

The PEDC appreciated the presentations, and asked clarifying questions after the trio of speakers. Councilor Cynthia Brock asked what capacity would be needed in local courts to support tenants who would face eviction as the only form of terminating landlord-tenant relationships under Good Cause legislation, to which Rossettie Azemi explained that the needs are not being met as it is and that more qualified legal personnel are needed.

I wish this was an easier topic to explain. Unfortunately, it’s dense material with a lot of variation in rights and proposed rights depending on various tenant-landlord situations and even with regards to who the landlords and tenants are. That’s a lot of why everything is in this long-running exploratory stage, because everyone is having difficulties in wrapping their heads around it and coming up with something inclusive, fair, and able to survive state courts.

“As an alderperson, that’s my job, to educate my communicate about this, that’s why I want this information,” summarized councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd).

“This is not a topic that’s stalled in committee, but one where we continue to gather information,” said Interim Mayor Laura Lewis (D).

Renewal of Rental Agreements Notifications

This is a continuation of legislation first proposed by Common Councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th Ward) a couple of months ago. The ordinance revision 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 of nine months or longer, 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 120 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.

The renewal of rental agreements legislation was also a non-voting item last night, the plan being to have a discussion on it and a public hearing on the legislation as a Special Order of Business.

Public speakers in last night’s meeting were generally unimpressed with the legislation, some for going too far and some for not going far enough. Tenants’ rights advocates view this proposal as a “band-aid” and want Good Cause legislation/Right to Renew, which is on hold as the state attorney general’s office considers whether cities have the authority to pass such as law, or if it must be done on the legislative level. Although requested months ago, a decision has yet to be made by Attorney General Letitia James’s office, according to city attorney Ari Lavine. Meanwhile, landlords and their advocates have been vociferously opposed to the legislation, which they say leads to logistical issues, higher rents, and an economic hit to the community.

Councilor Mehler led off the committee’s discussion by reiterating his motivations for the legislation. Attorney Lavine said in response to council concerns that he wouldn’t put limitations on virtual showing themselves, but landlords definitely can’t advertise a unit as available if it’s not. Councilor Brock clarified she’s trying to avoid landlords listing units for rent when they have yet to ask tenants whether they plan to renew or not. By unanimous vote, the language of the legislative proposal was updated that to say that advertising or showing the unit and saying it’s available, without confirming it’s available, would be prohibited.

As for the 120-day notice for landlord intent to renew a lease or put a unit on the market, Brock has said she had received a lot of pushback and wanted to consider reducing the notice period to 90 days, while Mehler remained firm on the 120-day length, but was willing to consider a bifurcated format where it was 60 days for a nine-month lease, and a longer period like 120 days for 11-month and 12-month leases. Brock and councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) were skeptical of the proposal, with Brock calling it “unnecessarily complicated” that may prompt the shifting of lease lengths to exploit the time-based loophole.

In sum, there was little headway made in the issue last night. “This is why it’s a discussion item and not a voting item,” surmised Mayor Lewis. “This will likely be a discussion item next month. We’re not voting to move this (to council).” Therefore, we’ll be picking up with this topic again next month.

Finger Lake ReUse Forgivable Job Retention Loan

In other business, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency was before the PEDC last night to request an amendment to a forgivable loan to local non-profit Finger Lakes ReUse, which operates its flagship store at 214 Elmira Road. FLRU employs about 75 living-wage staff and has a program to help those with barriers to employment (special needs, previously incarcerated) gain stable employment. The ReUse program is also estimated to divert about 700 tons from the landfill every year through collection, refurbishment and sale of donated household goods.

Like many organizations, the pandemic affected ReUse’s work – the amount of donated goods increased by 20% as people stayed home and bought more stuff (and got rid of their old stuff). However, volunteers also stayed home due to health and safety protocols, replaced with more paid staff. This increased their labor costs. Meanwhile, parts of their job readiness program were delayed in 2020 and 2021, but are in place now. Long story short, this would create a $150,000 forgivable loan with $52,000 from the IURA and $98,000 already-allocated grant funds left over from the 2020-21 job readiness program accounts to cover the increased labor costs so that no one’s at risk of being laid off in the short-term. The loan will be forgiven if the five positions targeted remain on payroll through July 2023, otherwise they have to pay it back within two years.

This legislation was the only part of the agenda with a voting item, and if it can get a majority vote (3 of 5 members) it will go to the full 10-member Common Council for a vote to become law. Side note, with councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) as interim mayor, a majority of councilors have to vote in favor of legislation, otherwise it fails; there is no eleventh person serving as mayor to be a tiebreaker.

The Special Order of Business/Public Hearing for the FLRU item received no public comment. IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn explained the circumstances leading to the request and noted that the funds to be reallocated were not allowed to be touched by the early stage of the pandemic, but that portions of the original allocation are being utilized now as business has returned to regular operation.

Brown and Mehler asked for clarifications on intent, and Brock asked why they would call it a “forgivable loan” vs. a “revokable grant”, to which Bohn said it’s due to ease of writing and that it gives the city a stronger position to recapture the funds if necessary. The vote to send to council passed unanimously 5-0.

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.