Ithaca, New York, might become the first U.S. city to cancel rental debt for tenants caught in the coronavirus pandemic’s economic destruction.
On Wednesday, the Ithaca Common Council, the city’s governing body, approved a resolution that would give the mayor the authority to forgive all outstanding rental debt accrued by tenants and small businesses over the last three months. The resolution would not affect tenants who have already paid their rent and it would not apply to future rental payments. But it would allow tenants who have fallen behind to start over from scratch.
“This is a statement to the state that if they’re not going to do something to address this problem, give us the power,” said Stephen Smith, an alderperson on the Ithaca Common Council who voted for the resolution. The proposal, which Smith described as a “last resort,” must still be approved by the New York State Department of Health. The measure would also ban evictions in the city, freeze rents at their current levels and oblige landlords to offer lease extensions to tenants.
The resolution, which appears to be the first of its kind in the United States, comes amid a nationwide debate about how to address the impacts of the pandemic. With unemployment hitting nearly unprecedented levels, housing experts and political officials fear a wave of evictions once states begin to lift their temporary eviction bans. For months, activists have called for cities to cancel rental and mortgage payments and forgive outstanding debts.
“We’re already seeing tenants in Ithaca getting threatened by landlords,” said Liel Sterling, a Cornell student and co-founder of the Ithaca Tenants Union, the organization leading the effort to pass the local resolution. “We know that mass evictions lead to mass homelessness. The state has showed time and time again that they’re willing to go to bat for landlords and homeowners. This is a way of saying that we need to protect the most vulnerable people first.”
“It’s become clear that Congress is going to bail out the people at the top and let the people at the bottom drown.”
The Democratic mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, said that if New York state grants him the authority to cancel rental debts, he would not forgive all outstanding payments immediately. Debt forgiveness would likely be means-tested for renters. City officials have also called on the state to allocate funds to keep landlords whole. The resolution, Myrick said, is a tool to force a conversation between landlords, tenants, and state and local officials about how best to distribute the impacts of the coming coronavirus-caused recession.
“It’s become clear that Congress is going to bail out the people at the top and let the people at the bottom drown,” Myrick said. “The idea [of canceling rent] still has problems but it’s better than the reality that we’re living in.”
Organizing During A Pandemic
The urgency in passing the resolution came from the looming expiration of New York State’s blanket eviction ban on June 20. While the current state moratorium prevents all evictions, the next phase of the ban requires tenants to prove that their failure to pay rent was due to the COVID-19 fallout. Genevieve Rand, an organizer for the Ithaca Tenants Union, said the narrower moratorium will burden poor tenants and disadvantage renters who don’t speak English.
“If you don’t show up to court, you get evicted,” Rand said. “If you’re an undocumented worker, you get no protection at all. The new eviction moratorium leaves our most vulnerable people even more vulnerable.”
The Ithaca Tenants Union, which was founded late last year, has been advocating for a rental debt cancellation since March. The organization set up online petitions and organized phone banks for renters to call city officials every 15 minutes. In late May, it held a protest of more than 100 cars parading through downtown Ithaca.
Even before the pandemic, the issue of affordable housing in the city was becoming more acute. Average home prices have more than doubled since 1999. Nearly three-quarters of Ithacans are renters, nearly 60% of whom are rent-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing). Ithaca’s economy is heavily dependent on college students and tourists and the related service sectors. All these factors make the city especially vulnerable to the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
“If you accept that we’re experiencing a financial collapse, then the conversation should be about who should experience the effects,” Rand said. “We think that if anyone should be impacted, it should be in the higher socioeconomic strata. They have power to lobby for themselves. Renters don’t.”
Rand herself is a barista who was laid off early in the pandemic. Her lease is up next month and she expects the state’s narrower moratorium will give her no protection against eviction.
“I still haven’t been able to get an unemployment or stimulus check,” she said. “It’s the worst possible time to figure out how to make a deposit and pay first month’s rent on a new apartment.”
If the city’s resolution is approved by the state, Smith, the Common Council member, said he hopes that it can become a nationwide model.
“If other cities are located in states that are failing to act, they should be looking at every tool they can get their hands on to bring people together and avoid mass homelessness,” he said.
“We could give money to banks and hope that they’re giving loans to small businesses, or we could give money directly to people. Renters are going to spend that money on food and the things they need to get by. They’re going to pay it forward,” said Smith.
As for the future of the resolution, it is likely to be an uphill battle. One local landlord has already denounced the initiative as socialism. Another Ithaca alderperson, Ducson Nguyen, told The Ithaca Times that approval at the state level is a “longshot.”
Myrick, for his part, remains optimistic.
“I’m not confident,” he said, “but I’m hopeful.”
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