ITHACA, N.Y.—As several of the recent meetings have been at the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee, this month’s get-together was rather dense with focus on code revisions, once again related to tenants’ rights as well as the Green New Deal. Hop in below for a summary of last night’s discussion, and click here if you like to have the agenda handy while you read on.

Programming note, short-term rentals (commonly Airbnb or Vrbo, though there are other services) legislation and policy objectives were on the agenda Wednesday night as a non-voting discussion item, but my colleague Zoë Freer-Hessler will cover that in more detail in a subsequent article. So I’m going to just note that it was discussed Wednesday night, but it will be written about in a second piece dedicated just to that topic.

Renewal of Rental Agreements Notifications

Continuing on from last month is a legislative amendment first proposed by Common Councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th Ward) a few 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 to no longer allow the tenant and landlord to mutually waive the notice was removed; the waiver would not be kept in this version, though it does mandate that the waiver signature is a separate document rather than some oblique reference in a lease.

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 of Collegetown. The revised rental agreements law would take effect May 31 if passed by the PEDC tonight and then passed by the full Common Council at their April meeting. Tonight’s voting also includes a vote on Declaration of Lead Agency and declaration of environmental significance, because renting laws are technically part of the zoning code and the state mandates a Short Environmental Assessment Form (SEAF) at minimum for changes in zoning.

The Declaration of Lead Agency and the SEAF Negative Declaration (meaning negative environmental impacts have been mitigated) passed unanimously with councilman Rob Gearhart (D-3rd Ward) absent. Then turned to the discussion.

Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) gave praise to her colleague for his efforts on the topic, lauding him for his efforts. Brock expressed support for the longer 120-day waiver, but felt that its removal was justifiable if students would have the ability to review and sign a separate document from the lease rather than the lease itself containing a vague reference the section of relevant city code without further explanation. After a short discussion, the vote to send the legislation to council passed unanimously.

“Thank you for all the effort that went into this. I think this is a really positive change for renters,” said Acting Mayor Laura Lewis.

Climate Justice Community

As described in a memorandum from Rebecca Evans, the city’s new Sustainability Coordinator, the proposal before the PEDC is to accept a definition of “Climate Justice Community” that supports the goals of the city of Ithaca’s Green New Deal (GND). The GND has goals for not only reducing greenhouse gases, but improving social equity, so by creating this rubric based on the definition and its criteria for climate justice, the city can conduct neighborhood censuses to inform outreach and engagement efforts on behalf of the GND’s goals.

In other words, you define what a “climate justice community” (CJC) is, build criteria around those terms, and then conduct analyses to figure out what neighborhoods are most in need of resources and infrastructure investments, the ones most fitting the CJC definition being the ones most in need. Household income is a part of that definition, but it also includes whether a neighborhood has “at-risk” groups or if it’s been historically underserved with resources or good infrastructure, here meaning access to energy, transportation, employment options and chances to engage government.

The resolution includes the following proposed definition: “Climate Justice Communities (CJCs) are communities, including but not limited to individual households, that bear unfair and disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of climate change; are least able to prepare, withstand and recover from the effects of climate change; possess certain health, environmental and socioeconomic attributes; include disproportionate concentrations of low- and moderate-income households; or are associated with other present or historical social factors that act as threat multipliers on a warming planet with limited resources.” It’s followed by a fairly extensive list of socioeconomic criteria in how to determine if a neighborhood is a CJC.

During discussion, Brock pointed out that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is rolling out its own CJC definition, and asked how well it matched up with Ithaca’s. Evans said, in short, “yes and no.” There are some similarities and have similar goals, but the two were drafted separately and include Ithaca-specific elements as well as the DEC’s criteria.

There’s going to be a fair amount of data that will need to be collected; for instance, one of the criteria is the amount of rental housing that hasn’t been inspected in 10+ years, or the numbers of isolated people (people living alone without support) based on age. That’s not easily available data, and Evans acknowledged that, noting that a household that fulfills some criteria is more likely to fulfill other criteria – she cited a hypothetical instance where an uninspected rental is more likely to have an outsized energy bill, in the logic that it’s lacking good insulation and energy-efficient appliances.

City Attorney Ari Lavine had his own set of questions, asking where this definition would be used, given that right now it’s abstract and not a part of a particular program. Lavine noted that the city does not have great expertise in conducting surveys, and that the most likely use of the definition would be in benefit applications for improvements, so he was wondering why survey data was more important than simple access criteria, why it had to be defined in advance vs. some income/physical limitation stated in an application. City Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres responded that the survey counts as a “climate disclosure” that allows the city to negotiate better borrowing rates per the U.S. Treasury. In short, it’s better for procuring funding and makes borrowing for green improvements less expensive.

Without much further discussion, the vote to accept the proposed definition came up for its decision, and the vote to send the Climate Justice Community to the full Common Council passed unanimously.

Next Steps for Good Cause Legislation

Tenant protection has been a thorny topic ever since PEDC first delved into it back in August 2021, with different advocacy groups and individuals speaking for and against certain provisions and the strength of those provisions. Most of the past several months of meetings have had something on the agenda with regards to the Good Cause Legislation, whether presentations, public hearings, or draft legislation. Issues raised in the state courts about the legality of New York State cities being able to set Good Cause legislation has given the city time to ruminate while the courts work it out, but apart from Right to Counsel legislation and tweaking the rental agreements notice period, there hasn’t been much headway on tenants’ rights legislation.

During Public Comment, members of the Executive Board of the Cornell Democrats, Logan Morales and Deepak Ilango, said that any council member who does not support moving forward the fall 2021 legislation that has since stalled would not receive the group’s endorsement and support in subsequent primaries and general elections, citing “utter disappointment” in the lack of action so far.

“Not a single member of Common Council will ever again receive an endorsement if they don’t support the original good cause legislation…the Democrats in Cornell and Ithaca are tired of this,” said Morales.

Mayor Lewis noted that, to the city’s dismay, there has been no opinion on the legality of the Good Cause legislation from the state attorney general’s office—they actively not to issue one, and with the laws under litigation in places like Albany that have passed it, the legislation was being ignored by local courts because it was being litigated. City Attorney Ari Lavine chimed in to say that Ithaca is working with non-profit LawNY to offer services for tenants and to provide guidance and answer questions regarding tenant-landlord issues. It is an effort, though, because LawNY is struggling to hire enough lawyers and complementary staff to handle the workload.

“I’m hoping that we move on this good cause eviction [bill], because I think that what’s happening is that people don’t show up to court because they’re not valuable enough that they’re not going to win—’Why should I go, I’ll lose anyway.’ When I think about us having more conversations and moving forward with Good Cause legislation, it gives renters a feeling of being embraced and empowered. I hope that we start looking at other communities that have implemented Good Cause legislation and how it works in their communities,” said Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd).

“It was my understanding that everything was on hold in the communities that have passed Good Cause because of the legal challenge on the state level,” said Councilor Brock. “I think it should really be clearly understood that if the city were to go forward prior to this legal opinion, it would not have an impact in terms of evictions.”

“Last I was aware, the Albany litigation was still pending, and you’re right, that likely means it wasn’t having any effect,” said Attorney Lavine.

“The underlying question is the pre-emption question, right? Do cities and municipalities have the jurisdiction to pass legislation on what is determined grounds for eviction, or is that pre-empted by the rights of the state. Without guidance of what local municipalities have jurisdiction over, I think it would be premature to through this process of passing legislation at this time, when we may actually end up causing a lot more confusion in the end when the opinion comes into place and we have regulations that are halfway-applied, because the foundation just isn’t there. That’s confusion for tenants, for landlords, for judges and attorneys. It’s not a good way to bring this forward,” said Brock.

The legislation is not moving forward at this time, and the committee did not expect further action anytime soon. Lewis was clear on that, and acknowledged the frustration. She stated that the city did not have the ability to move forward on the legislation given the confusion about its legality—as illustrated in Albany, even if voted in, it wouldn’t be enforced and would just cause confusion. But Lewis did cite actions in right to counsel, tenants’ rights services and the work with LawNY to note that the city is making efforts to support tenants. Lewis and Brock supported efforts to work on legislation to better enforce housing codes for tenants, and city Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas said she could invite code enforcement officers next month to speak about what can potentially be done.

On a final note, the governor’s remote meeting Executive Order expires tomorrow, so meetings will shift to a hybrid format where members are expected to be in-person, while city meetings are streamed online. This includes council committees as well as citizen commissions like the Planning Board, so you’ll be able to give your comments either in-person or electronically in future meetings for the time being.

Brian Crandall

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