April 2, 2013

BORES: Breathing Room For Collegetown Leases

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Exactly six months ago, a headline in the Daily Sun read, as “Collegetown Housing Rush Intensifies, Students Sleep Outside Rental Agency.” The cause, of course, was not trying to relive the glory days of camping for hockey tickets, a practice that the administration ended because of student health concerns. Perhaps ironically, students feared that if they slept in their own beds, every desirable bedroom in Collegetown would be leased to someone else by the time they woke up.

Over the past few years, it seems that Cornellians have felt pressured to sign leases earlier and earlier. This past fall, some students ended up signing leases nearly 12 months before the leases would start. This process excludes younger Cornellians from living in Collegetown and leads to less-informed housing choices. Even some landlords are beginning to complain arguing that rushed, ill-formed decisions lead to more students trying to get out of leases early.

The rental market in Ithaca affects every resident, as 74 percent of Ithaca’s housing units are renter-occupied. It is also an incredibly tight market. The vacancy rate is only 2.4 percent, nearly a third of the average New York state rate. This can leave renters with little bargaining power.

Unfortunately, the Cornell administration does not have the power to ban landlords from leasing properties early. But the Common Council of Ithaca does, and they may soon be debating doing just that.

Last week, thanks to fantastic work by Collegetown Student Council President Eric Silverberg ’14 and GPSA President (and Rental Housing Advisory Commission co-chair) Mitch Paine grad, the RHAC passed a proposed motion on to the Planning and Economic Development Committee of the Common Council. The resolution calls for an amendment to the Ithaca City Code which would require 60 days written notice before “(i) renewing current lease, (ii) showing property to prospective new tenants or (iii) signing a lease with new tenants.” Additionally, that written notice would not be allowed until the lease starts, guaranteeing tenants time to evaluate the quality of their residence and their landlord before deciding to renew.

If adopted, this policy will slow the rush to snatch up all of the units in Collegetown before students are ready to commit. However, it will do so in a way that is very fair to property owners. The requirement for 60 days written notice will be waived for leases that are less than nine months long. In addition, the landlord and tenant can mutually agree to waive that period, as long as that agreement is in writing.

While some owners see the benefit in giving everyone time to make an informed decision, others are sure to fight what they see as increased government regulation of their affairs. As I have previously detailed, being an Ithaca landlord is not as cushy of a job as it may appear. Landlords often deal with unruly tenants, property damage and legal liability. They have property taxes that eat away at their profits and their ability to invest in capital improvements. Yet this amendment should be mutually beneficial. If landlords know that their competitors are not showing their properties in the early fall, then they can take time to ensure that the students they are leasing to are responsible parties.

This is an issue that will have strong opinions on either side. Yet I see it as a modest change that will improve Collegetown for both landlords and renters. If you agree, the PEDC will be allowing public comments at its next meeting on at 6 p.m. on April 10, in City Hall. Decisions are made by those that show up, and hearing from passionate students is sure to help give Common Council members context for understanding the student experience. Luckily, unlike the current process for securing a lease, you will not need to camp out on the street to have your voice heard.

Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at awb78@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Alex Bores