January 31, 2012

The Collegetown Compromise

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From most tenants’ perspectives, Collegetown landlord can seem like a dream job. You have steady demand every year, get students to sign leases nearly a year in advance and charge outrageous prices. You can set almost any rules you want, and even your worst tenants leave after a year. In short, you are guaranteed income, much to the chagrin of Cornell students.Yet the recent complaints of Cornell landlords about excessive property damage have begun to shatter this myth. Collegetown landlords have to deal with unruly tenants, legal liability and destruction of their property. If a student causes damage in excess of his or her security deposit, proprietors can rarely get compensation. Even when a landlord makes a profit, property taxes eat away a substantial amount. The more difficult it is for landlords to profit, the more restrictions they will put on Cornell tenants.In short, both sides have something to gain from more accountability. Collegetown is ripe for a compromise, and both Cornell and the City of Ithaca can help broker it.The ultimate solution in Collegetown is and always has been more housing. Increased development increases student choices, reduces prices and eliminates the need to rush into a contract early. Additionally, the more units there are in Collegetown, the more students will live there and the greater profits landlords will make. That is why the efforts of the administration to broker private partnerships for new housing development are so exciting, as are many of Mayor Svante Myrick’s proposals for improving Collegetown. But all of these proposals are years away, and both sides are looking for solutions now.Of course, the tension in Collegetown is not new. The Era, Cornell’s first student newspaper (sorry Daily Sun), noted in 1889 that housing prices were “abnormally high.” In contrast, Morris Bishop 1913, Cornell alumnus, faculty member and historian, described the residents of Collegetown as “a vast plebeian mass, the independents, the outsiders, the pills, the poops, the drips.” In 1975, a writer in the Ithaca Journal said that “Collegetown is, and always has been, the fertile soil in this area for writing, partying, rioting, speech-making, and messing up and getting off,” though I am sure that last phrase had a different meaning back then.Just as long as there has been tension, Cornell has been trying to create solutions. In 1914, the Cornell Board of Trustees voted for a plan to inspect houses in Collegetown and provide students with the results. In the 1980s and 90s, Cornell poured over $40 million into improving the area. The Cornell Off-Campus Housing Office hosts listings for apartments, links for information and advice for both lessors and lessees. Despite these efforts, both students and landlords remain unsatisfied, and both have asked Cornell to step into the fray.In the ideal situation, Cornell could act as a clearinghouse for renting in Collegetown. Landlords would be asked to sign a contract requiring them to follow all zoning requirements, be “good citizens” and clarify their fees — the system in place at Georgetown University. In exchange, Cornell could consider ways to help landlords be remedied for excessive damage, up to and including the ability to bursar repair costs in extreme cases. These terms would be entirely voluntary, but I suspect that most students and owners would quickly sign up.Unfortunately, Cornell must always be concerned with any endeavor that may expose it to legal liability. Enforcing contracts may be a job better done by the City of Ithaca or independent associations. But the need for accountability on both ends is growing, and it is time for someone to step in the middle. Despite what one may see on a typical Saturday night, Collegetown has made a lot of progress since its days as “a vast plebeian mass.” But if we want to make it an even more enjoyable place to live, its time for both landlords and students to compromise.

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

Original Author: Alex Bores