In Ithaca and across New York State, the conversation around the rights of tenants has shifted from the one happening prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firmly centered in Ithaca’s housing conversation is an effort to rebalance power from landlords to tenants, with the “Right to Renew Leases” or “Good Cause Eviction” written on the marquee.

Right to renew laws are distinguished by two measures: setting a limit on the amount rent can be increased by year to year; and making it a tenant’s right to choose to renew their leases or not. Under New York State law, landlords are not required to supply an explanation if they choose not to renew a tenant’s lease.

Different versions of right to renew laws have been passed in the cities of Albany, Beacon, Newburgh, as well as Kingston. A campaign to pass right to renew as a state law has been gathering steam, although New York’s Democrats have been hesitant to embrace the measure

And Albany, the first municipality in New York State to pass a version of the law, is currently facing a lawsuit alleging that a local good cause law preempts the state’s authority to regulate rent and evictions.

In Ithaca, the attention which right to renew Laws has received can almost entirely be connected to the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU) — a grassroots, volunteer organization formed in March 2020 whose activism has had, at times, a polarizing effect in local politics.

Right to renew was originally introduced to the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) in Aug. 2021, but the law was put on pause in December by the City over the worry that it might open itself up to a lawsuit by preempting state authority.

The tenant’s union, though, has remained vigilant in promoting the law, and attempting engage city residents on its contents.

Demonstrators, including members of the Ithaca Tenant’s Union, stand outside the Ithaca City Courthouse protesting the eviction proceedings happening inside. (03/17/2022) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Genevieve Rand, a long-time ITU activist, said that the ability for landlords to deny lease renewal without a reason leaves the window wide open for potential discrimination against tenants.

Rand used the example of requesting repairs from landlords, citing that while there are legal avenues to compel a reluctant landlord, a lease non-renewal is a “huge loophole in the law that allows us to get kicked out of our house for any reason or no reason.” 

The lack of transparency, Rand contends, makes it very hard for tenants to prove an action is retaliatory or discriminatory along any lines. 

“So there’s all these rights that we’re supposed to have but if we exert them a landlord can just deny us a lease renewal and then kick us out,” said Rand.

ITU is open about its hard-and-fast belief that there is never truly a good reason for an eviction to be served, and that no one should own more housing than they need for themselves or their landlords. As an organization, they’re ideologically opposed to the landlord tenant relationship. It’s a point of view that has certainly distanced some public officials from the organization. Although some individual ITU members don’t agree with this talking point.

However, the version of good cause eviction law that ITU is pushing does allow grounds for evictions, 

ITU’s version of the bill, which has seen major revisions and dispute through months of back-and-forth in the PEDC , includes the following conditions for eviction, as presented on their website:

  1. A tenant has an unpaid rent balance, assuming the apartment meets the Warranty of Habitability and the unpaid balance is not due to a rent increase
  2. A tenant has intentionally or neglectfully caused significant damage to the unit
  3. A tenant has assaulted or harassed their neighbors
  4. The City of Ithaca has issued an order making it illegal to have people in the building, such as condemning it over safety concerns.
  5. A tenant has used (or allowed use of) the unit for an illegal purpose, excluding nonviolent drug crimes.

In a public presentation delivered on March 24, ITU indicated that it also saw a landlord seeking for family members or themselves to personally occupy a unit as a suitable reason to not renew a tenants lease.

“Unintended consequences” of good cause

A rental property managed by the Dryden Apartment Company. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Kayla Lane, a member of the Landlords Association of Tompkins County (LATC) and one of the owners of the Dryden Apartment Company — a property management company with rental units in the City of Ithaca as well as throughout Tompkins County — argues that the passage of a right to renew law may have “unintended consequences,” like narrowing the pool of tenants which landlords would choose from. Though, that would be by choice of the landlord.

Lane said that she would have to be more selective about the tenants she signs leases with if she knew that she wasn’t able to deny a lease renewal.

“I need to have that opportunity. If I’m going to take a chance on somebody,” said Lane.

In addition, Lane said that the law should permit landlords to not renew a lease for tenants if they’re seeking to make major renovations, repairs, or are attempting to sell the property. While she wholly opposes the good cause eviction laws, Lane said these two points are “the biggest issue I have with what has been presented to us locally.”

But proponents of a good cause law will argue that there isn’t a substitute for the protections it can provide. Without a guarantee for lease renewal, the pressures which a vindictive landlord can impose are unavoidable.

Carolyn Headlam, an ITU activist, is an early career professional living and working in Ithaca. Over the years, Headlam said she found herself agreeing to rents that were increasingly unaffordable so she sought out group-living situations, renting apartments with multiple bedrooms in order to live within her budget. 

Striving against the cost of rent made her want greater protections as a tenant which, in Ithaca, she said is like “being a majority population with minority power.”

Carolyn Headlam is an activist with the Ithaca Tenant’s Union. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

“It was really scary to think I might lose my home and any chance for housing, just for asserting the rights I am entitled to under state law.”

Carolyn Headlam

According to Tompkins County’s 2020 housing snapshot, 74% of the City of Ithaca’s residents are renters, and almost 72% are cost burdened, which means over 30% of their income goes toward rent.  Nearly 50% of cost-burdened renter households are severely cost burdened, with over 50% of income going toward rent. The U.S. Department of Housing defines affordable housing as costing 30% or less of a household’s income.

In 2019, the median household income for Ithaca was just over $34,000, while the median rent for a one bedroom apartment was $941 a month according to Tompkins County’s 2019 Housing Snapshot. The median rent for a one bedroom apartment rose to $1,072 a month in 2020 according to the County’s most recent housing snapshot.

The amount which residents are paying in property taxes in Ithaca and across Tompkins County is increasing year over year. The median property sale value in the county went up just over 14% from 2020 to 2021, so while the tax rate may have decreased in Ithaca, the total amount coming out of the pockets of property owners is increasing. The added costs are expressed to tenants in their rent.

But the big push for Headlam to join ITU was not rising housing costs. It was a first hand experience of one of her previous landlords threatening to evict her after an interaction where she said she  “insisted that they follow the law and give me 24 hours notice before entering my apartment.”

Headlam said this was during 2021, when COVID-19 loomed more heavily, and while she was “struggling to cobble together my security deposit in order to move.”

“As a Black woman, I am especially vulnerable to housing precarity,” said Headlam. “It was really scary to think I might lose my home and any chance for housing, just for asserting the rights I am entitled to under state law.”

Headlam said she’s joined ITU for the “emotional support” she found in the group, “and because I want to help other vulnerable tenants advocate for themselves.”

“In a city where there are so few [housing] options, a non-renewal is essentially an eviction,” said Headlam.

Brian Grout, owner of Ithaca Apartment Company and Vice President of LATC, said he thinks the proposed law as being unfair to the business small landlords — a term which he said describes the majority of landlords in the LATC.

Grout said that almost 80% of the landlords in the LATC rent 11 units or less.

An apartment building owned and managed by the Ithaca Apartment Company. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Small landlords have smaller margins, said Grout, so when issues arise with a tenant like rent non-payment, the financial hit is larger than it would be for a national hedge fund. Grout and Lane said that in some cases a non-lease renewal is an opportunity to move forward without having to hire an attorney, or go to court. These are costs they said that are more easily handled by the likes of corporate rental business, not smaller landlords and property managers which have a larger investment in the community.

“If I can make an 8% return at the end of the year on my business — that’s about all that I can expect,” said Grout, who maintained that the last thing he wants to do as a landlord is have to find a new tenant, let alone pursue an eviction. 

He said, “I do not want to […] have a vacant apartment. The margins are too thin.”

“I would ask the people who are in a position of owning a business to have some compassion, and maybe accept that things might be a little bit harder for them, so that they can be a lot better for a huge number of way poorer people,” said Rand.

Grout and Lane said that ultimately there is no version of the right to renew law they feel they could support.

Lane and Grout said that they don’t feel that the City’s Common Council has done enough to understand their perspectives and arguments as small business owners around the right to renew. Many members of ITU have contended the same — that the Common Council has not taken into account the perspectives of tenants through a panel discussion, rather than the typical avenue of public comments. 

Does Good Cause preempt New York State?

When asked for a comment on the concern of pre-empting the state if the City of Ithaca were to pass a right to renew law, Ithaca City Attorney Ari Lavine referred The Voice to a letter from the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM) written to the the City of Beacon Mayor Lee Kyriacou,  in January. The City of Beacon just passed a version of the law earlier this month, to the protests of its Mayor. 

NYCOM wrote that there are no court decisions or state agency opinions that directly address right to renew laws. While there isn’t a clear precedent, NYCOM did share two cases that could inform case for or against the laws, adding additional ambiguity to the whether the cities of Beacon and Albany are preempting the state.

Although, in February the American Bar Association (ABA) adopted “Ten Guidelines for Residential Eviction Laws,” which recommended that lease terminations be limited to “circumstances where good cause exists.”

The commentary for the guideline reads: “Forcing a household to relocate imposes significant disruption and potential hardship on the tenant, and should not be allowed without a legitimate reason. Allowing eviction without [good] cause invites abuse, enabling a discriminatory, retaliatory, or otherwise illegitimate motive for ending a tenancy to be easily concealed behind a “no cause” eviction.”

The ABA document further emboldens the perspective of those who believe that Ithaca should act on good cause eviction laws in the name of “the good”

Michaela Rosettie Azemi, Director of Pro Bono Services at Cornell University’s Law School, has testified in support of good cause eviction laws before the PEDC.

In a written statement to The Ithaca Voice, Rosettie Azemi wrote, “Good cause laws are not foreclosing the possibility of nonrenewal, just shifting the burden of proof to the landlord, and offering additional protection to tenants who are the ones with the most to lose – a roof over their heads—if they are de facto evicted by a non renewal.”

Rosettie Azemi wrote that, based on her analysis of state law, “it is highly likely that preemption is not an issue.”

Still, that does not reduce the chances that the City of Ithaca would have to fend off a lawsuit if it passed the law. No parties have come forward saying they would take legal action if the city passed a good cause law.

At her campaign announcement event in early March, acting Mayor Laura Lewis told The Ithaca Voice that wants to continue exploring the potential for a good cause law to have “unintended consequences that could, in fact, not benefit tenants in the way that we would all hope is the case.”

Laura Lewis speaks with members of the public in Ithaca’s Press Bay Alley after announcing her campaign to fill a one year term as Mayor of the City of Ithaca. (03/10/2022) Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Lewis said that the city is monitoring the case in Albany and that she is looking for an opinion from the NYS Attorney General Letitia James on good cause before proceeding.

During her short lived campaign for New York State Governor, James made a statewide good cause law an early pillar of her platform, but has yet to issue an opinion in her capacity as Attorney General.

Proponents from ITU are pushing the city to take on the risk. Rand cited the examples of Ithaca risking lawsuits when it chose to become a sanctuary city during the Trump administration, and when it recognized gay marriage before it weas a federal law.

But it ultimately isn’t ITU’s problem if the City has to face a lawsuit.

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!

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn