November 26, 2018

EDITORIAL: Cornell Needs a Tenants’ Rights Legal Clinic

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Two weeks ago, a Sun report illustrated the bruising, protracted process of securing Collegetown housing. Yesterday, another report showed how after students obtain housing, the living conditions to which they are subjected can be positively nightmarish.

The stories presented in those two articles are not unique. The Collegetown housing market is notoriously difficult to navigate, and with such limited supply concentrated in the hands of so few landlords, students often find themselves overpaying for accommodations that are sub-par or worse. And when circumstances reach a breaking point, students are left unprepared and unequipped to assert their rights as tenants.

We propose that Cornell institute a student-oriented service to help Collegetown and Ithaca renters deal with legal disputes involving their landlords. While not extending to full legal representation, this service would allow students to review potential leases prior to signing, and advise students on landlord-tenant conflicts and the rights afforded to them under New York and federal law.

Such a service would be staffed by Cornell Law School students. Such a setup — law students advising undergrads and grads — already has precedent in the Office of the Judicial Codes Counselor, and would have the bonus effect of giving law students real-world experience. Perhaps this service could be organized as a legal clinic; the law school already operates 22 clinics and practicums, on issues as varied as securities law, gender justice and capital punishment — and there are several eminently qualified property lawyers on the law faculty staff.

If creating a new clinic out of whole cloth is too tall a task, or if a clinic is not well-suited to such a narrow focus, the Office of Student and Campus Life could partner with the law school to develop a program operating out of Day Hall.

It is not beneficial to the administration or the student body to allow this housing nonsense to continue unabated. Students must be able to be confident in the quality of their housing. If their energy is spent fighting for the most basic of necessities — a roof, heating, working toilets — how can Cornell expect them to be productive members of the community? How long before Cornell begins to lose qualified, desired students because it’s not worth the trouble to physically live here? And while the North Campus expansion is a step toward a more sound housing system, the reality is that Cornellians will be negotiating with Collegetown landlords for the foreseeable future.

We should note that none of the ideas presented here are groundbreaking. Many of them are continuations of a report prepared by former graduate student-elected trustee Annie O’Toole J.D. ’16 and obtained by The Sun. O’Toole proposed a comprehensive “Student Legal Services” organization, one that would offer guidance on issues ranging from noise ordinance citations to personal bankruptcy to, yes, landlord-tenant disputes.

O’Toole’s proposal is aspirational. We are curious why it was shelved three years ago, and we would like to see something like it created down the line. Cornell can start by creating a more specialized service to advise on housing issues, and perhaps, in time it can grow to be more comprehensive.

But for now, we just need someone to help students keep the heat on, the toilets flushing, and the ceilings in the ceiling and not on the floor.