September 12, 2013

Despite New Law, Housing Rush Persists in Collegetown

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Despite a law passed in April that aims to relieve the off-campus housing rush, many say the pressure to sign a lease has simply intensified this fall.

The amendment to the city code that went into effect June 15 requires landlords provide a minimum of 60 days written notice to current tenants of a residential unit before renewing the agreement, showing the unit to other prospective tenants or entering into an agreement with new tenants.

“There is increasing concern that conditions in the rental housing market are placing unreasonable pressures on renters and landlords,” the ordinance reads.

For many of Collegetown residents and landlords, this has in fact been the case. Several landlords sent out emails over the summer or right when classes began notifying their current tenants about upcoming showings.

Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward) said that the new rental legislation was not intended as a cure-all for the troubles caused by the Collegetown housing rush.

For instance, the ordinance allows the 60 days notice to begin the day a lease begins. If a lease begins in the early summer — many leases begin June 1 or June 15 — then by the time a student moves in in late August, the landlord can have already begun showing the property. Additionally, because a landlord and tenant can mutually decide to waive the 60 days notice requirement, a landlord could potentially write the waiver directly into the lease.

Kerslick acknowledged some of the shortcomings of the law, but said that the legislation was not intended to — and could not, on its own — eliminate housing pressures.

“When [the Common Council] considered the legislation, when we discussed it during the process, it was certainly recognized that by itself, this was not going to change the situation,” Kerslick said. He said both a long term increase in rental housing and educating students about their rights as tenants are crucial to changing the culture of housing at Cornell.

“This is the normal situation right now; it’s that people, as soon as they get back, they start looking for apartments for next year,” Kerslick said. “And that’s because that’s the culture right now, and that’s not going to change overnight with one piece of legislation.”

The law instead attempts to give current tenants some time to live in their new housing before they have to make a decision about re-signing, Kerslick said.

“Again, the encouragement there was to get the landlord to tell you that he either gives you the option to renew the lease for next year or for you to say ‘I’m not interested,’ and so he could then show it to other people,” Kerslick said, noting that many landlords already follow this policy. “Landlords say it’s the students that are rushing; students say the landlords are forcing us to sign these leases early … You can say just let the market decide, but the market’s going in a direction, I think, that’s very unhelpful.”

Kerslick noted that because the legislation went into effect over the summer, the new notice period would not prevent people from coming back this semester and asking to see apartments right off the bat. However, he said, “landlords are … really being encouraged to say ‘I can’t show this for 60 days from the start of the lease period.’”

For many Collegetown tenants, the 60-day waiting period has not protected them in the way the legislation was intended to. Avramis Rentals sent out a notice Aug. 22 notifying tenants their apartments would be shown starting Sept. 3.

Pam Johnston Apartments sent out an email June 27 telling their tenants that they would give 24 hours’ notice before allowing an outside party to lease a resident’s current unit. At the beginning of September, however, PJ Apartments revoked that policy.

“With it now being September, the ‘mad rush’ of renting season is full force, and therefore we cannot offer a 24-hour notice and we must proceed with a first come, first served approach,” a Sept. 5 email from Grant Wilder, PJ Apartments’ assistant director of operations, read.

George Avramis of Student Rentals Ithaca echoed that sentiment in an Aug. 30 email to his tenants.

“I have had an unusually high and early demand for apartments for next year,” the email read.

Ithaca Renting Company — the same company that, last fall, saw students camping out overnight outside its offices to claim housing — sent a Sept. 6 email to tenants that began, “although the school year has just begun and you have barely had time to adjust to your new schedules, at the Rental Office we have started our 2014-15 Rental Season.”

“We have received over 300 inquiries for apartment rentals for next year, and even though classes have just begun we have to join the rental market as early as possible in order to stay competitive and secure the best tenants for our buildings,” the email continued.

The penalty for violating the new ordinance is a civil penalty of up to $500, which would be assessed at the discretion of the city prosecutor’s office, according to Kerslick.

“Factors to be considered when assessing the fine would include the number of tenants, number of units on the property, etc.,” the ordinance reads.

Although many students may consider the current housing search to be the norm, Kerslick, as well as Julie Paige, assistant dean of students, said that the rush has not always occurred this early in the fall.

“[Some] people used to look for housing … in the spring — and now its just escalating, and getting worse and worse,” Kerslick said.

Paige said that since she started working at the University in 1987, she has seen the big lease-signing period shift from January to around late October or November. Paige said that it is only over the last four to six years that she started hearing about the August and September push.

“We are working to shift the culture, which will take some time. We begin our work with first-year students, its not just students already in apartments — students come here hearing from upperclass students saying ‘you’d better find your housing for your sophomore year or you’re not going to have a place to live,” Paige said. “So it’s not just about the landlords, it’s about the culture that has been set, and it’s not unique to Ithaca. I’ve talked to colleagues at other college towns where this has been a culture where the early lease signing is also an issue.”

Echoing Paige’s sentiments, Kerslick said that the new laws were intended not to fuel the housing rush, but rather to give students the time to think.

“There’s always going to be a rush,” Kerslick said. “But the idea was to try and have people get a little bit more information before they make these decisions.”