September 8, 2014

FISCHER | Jimmy’s Tale of Leasing in Collegetown

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By DAVID FISCHER

Our story begins with the tale of Jimmy the hypothetical junior, a rosy-cheeked young lad who has only recently moved into his new Eddy Street domicile, ready to take on the gilded streets of Collegetown. A first-year Collegetown denizen who managed to rustle up a few friends last fall to lease the same house, Jimmy’s excitement to waste the fleeting days of summer away on the patio of CTB and to sample the finest yogurts, teas and salads at the newly opened Teatime eatery knows no bounds. Just as Jimmy is hanging his poster that wittily portrays Bluto from the classic film Animal House wearing a sweatshirt that proclaims, “College,” Jimmy’s housemate and best friend (we’ll call him Timmy) walks in with some troubling news.

“Hey, Jimmy.”

“Yeah, Timmy?”

“I just got an mass email from our landlord to all of their tenants, it says that we should consider whether we want to resign our house since they’re starting tours on Monday.”

Anyone who has had any experience with the Collegetown leasing cycle has likely had an interaction similar to Jimmy and Timmy’s. It’s extraordinarily common for the most highly sought-after houses and apartments to be signed during the first few weeks of school, when most students return to campus. As a result, almost immediately after moving in, Jimmy and company need to make a few decisions: namely, whether they enjoy living together and whether they want to live in the same house their senior year.

This issue of an accelerated leasing cycle affects a huge number of Cornell undergraduates because of the limited amount of student housing for sophomore, junior and senior students. In the Fall of 2013, there were over 10,000 sophomores, juniors and seniors who could be vying for approximately 2,770 beds in on-campus housing. Since Cornell does not release exact class sizes, the number of sophomores, juniors and seniors is approximate, but pulled from data released by the University. The number of beds includes West Campus dorms, other upper-level residence halls, Program Houses and co-ops. Although the number does not include students living in fraternity or sorority houses (a popular option for Greek-affiliated sophomores), it’s quite clear that a large number of students are forced to seek housing in Collegetown.

In fact, many of our peer schools who guarantee housing for all four undergraduate years (as compared to Cornell’s two guaranteed years) have a much higher percentage of students who live on campus. Compare Cornell paltry 57% on-campus living rate with four-year guaranteers Harvard (98 percent), Princeton (97 percent), Stanford (91 percent) and MIT (90 percent) as well as fellow two-year guaranteers Yale (88 percent) and Dartmouth (86 percent). Clearly, off-campus housing at Cornell is far more ubiquitous than at other similar institutions.

Keeping in mind the figure that 43 percent of Cornell undergraduates (approximately 6,189 students, according to the Fall 2013 numbers) live off campus, this issue of an accelerated and irregular Collegetown leasing cycle deleteriously affects a gargantuan number of Cornellians. Collegetown living becomes the de facto norm for upperclassmen students, and the Collegetown leasing market should be regarded almost as an extension of University housing. Landlords should recognize that they are renting to students, and the leasing cycle should absolutely not begin before classes do.

Thankfully, the City of Ithaca has recognized this truth and attempted to better align the leasing cycle with the collegiate academic year. On June 5, 2013 the Ithaca Common Council amended the city code with the much-discussed rule that essentially requires that landlords give 60 days notice before renewing the current rental agreement, showing the residential unit to prospective new tenants or entering into a rental agreement with new tenants.

In theory, this policy is intended to give Jimmy and his friends plenty of time to settle into their new home before tours start stomping through. However, in practice, landlords can very easily notify their tenants with 12-month leases starting in June as soon as the lease begins, rendering the policy essentially worthless. (Side note: A wiley landlord can even sneak in a waiver of this privilege into a leasing contract; always read your contracts, unwitting college students). Furthermore, the policy creates a fragmented leasing market, where houses and apartments with 12-month leases are snapped up as soon as students return Far Above Cayuga’s Waters, while their 10-month lease counterparts (starting in August) do not go on the market until October. This creates further housing uncertainty at the precise time when students are reacclimating to the Hill.

Although the City’s requirement of 60 days notice before another lease can be signed is clearly well-intentioned, it only achieves its intended purpose of delaying the Collegetown housing crunch in the case of 10-month leases that start in August. There is essentially no effect on leases that begin in June or July. Therefore, in order to safeguard the interests of the vast number of students who seek off-campus housing in Collegetown, the City should re-tailor its policy to affect all properties typically leased to college students. Creating a policy that enforces October (or an even later time) as the month that properties are toured and leases are signed would establish a less frantic leasing marketplace. Granted, there would still be groups of harried Jimmys, flapping checks in-hand, running to leasing offices. But they would be Jimmys who had diligently and thoroughly explored their options, had determined who exactly to live with and, ultimately, had experienced less stress through the much more relaxed and fair process.

David Fischer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dfischer@cornellsun.com. Fischy Business appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.