Following a months-long housing fiasco that resulted in withheld rent and a brief stint sleeping in the library, Shimon Shuchat ’19 and Mei Zheng ’18 have secured housing in Collegetown Terrace at the bequest of individuals that wish to remain anonymous, citing privacy concerns pertaining to business operations.
Their plight has drawn significant attention from the Cornell community and the City of Ithaca, which is now considering a commission to holistically assess long-standing issues of housing affordability and quality.
According to Stephen Smith (D-4th Ward), Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 intends to create a new commission to holistically assess long-standing housing issues in the city, including the lack of enforcement mechanisms, affordable housing and preventing landlords from requiring leases to be signed over a year in advance.
The commission will be made up of renters, Common Council members, lawyers, representatives from the Cornell Law School, Ithaca College and the Cornell Off-Campus Housing Office.
“This has been a common theme,” Smith said in an interview with The Sun. “I’ve been on Common Council for six years now, and one of the early frustrations was realizing how little power we have to crackdown on low quality housing.”
Smith added that the Common Council would separately look closely at enforcing the Certificate of Compliance violations, improving awareness of the City’s resources for tenants and instituting stronger repercussions for improperly functioning heating.
Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) of Ithaca Common Council questioned whether the current model of enforcing housing code violations is strong enough to achieve its goals.
“I wonder if seeking compliance, rather than penalties, does nothing to stop repeat offenders among landlords,” Fleming said in an email to The Sun. “Do our building staff need stronger legislation to support [the building department’s] work? If so, what can Council do to help them?”
The certificate of compliance for Zheng and Shuchat’s house expired in November 2015, according to the Building Department. Assuming a Certificate of Compliance is reinstated after an inspection scheduled for Dec. 5, the minimum penalty landlords David and Barbara Lower could technically face is $111,300 and the maximum is $278,250, based on rates outlined in the City Code.
It is unclear whether any fines will be levied against landlords David and Barbara Lower as a result of the dispute, and Fleming indicated in an email that such cases are “often not prosecuted.”
Some landlords in the Ithaca area also expressed concern about the city’s handling of Certificate of Compliance violations. Costa Lambrou ’16 of Lambrou Real Estate, which owns over a dozen Collegetown apartments and houses, said that the time elapsed without a certificate in Zheng and Shuchat’s case was “outrageous.”
“If there’s no legislation in place that catches that or that fines for that, there needs to be, but a lapse of a month is fairly typical,” Lambrou said.
Lambrou and Smith both stressed the need to include Cornell in the conversation about housing. “When a parent drops their kid off at Cornell, Cornell becomes responsible for the wellbeing for that kid to a large extent … if the main driver of their stress is coming from a lack of affordable housing, Cornell has a role to play in part with the city,” said Smith, the Common Council member.
Cornell’s Off-Campus Housing Office has already taken steps to crack down on landlords by requiring current Certificates of Compliance to list on their housing platform, but some university officials have suggested that Cornell could do more to protect students.
Ian Schachner ILR ’04, associate director of undergraduate admissions for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, has long hoped to form a renters association to protect against mistreatment by landlords, slow response times and poor quality housing.
“When that many of your undergrads live off campus, you can’t claim to care about their well-being if you’re not taking a sufficient role in their housing situation,” Schachner said. “We have 20 organizations about every animal, vegetable and environmental cause, but not a single one related to an issue that defines most of the people, which is that we are a city of renters.”
Schachner also expressed support for the creation of a Law School tenants rights clinic to assist students with housing woes, an idea previously proposed by former graduate student-elected trustee Annie O’Toole J.D. ’16 and echoed by an editorial in The Sun. University spokesperson Gillian Smith declined to comment on any pending response from Cornell.