Yisu Zheng / Sun Staff Photographer

Ithaca City Council voted last week to strengthen tenant protections and increase penalties for noncompliant landlords.

March 12, 2019

City Council Votes to Stiffen Penalties for Noncompliant Landlords

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Flooding toilets. Kitchens that don’t work. Ithaca’s housing market, notorious for horror stories of terrible conditions at astronomical prices, has long been a headache for Cornellians and Ithaca residents alike. Soon, the laws policing unsound housing will get sharper teeth.

Last Wednesday, Ithaca’s Common Council voted to stiffen penalties for landlords who lease apartments deemed unsafe or that surpass occupancy limits. The motion also strengthens protections for tenants.

Under the previous law, Ithaca’s director of planning and development could order any building considered “unsafe” to be vacated, which could include buildings being judged “structurally unsafe, unsanitary, constitute a fire hazard or are otherwise dangerous to human life.”

However, under the original law, landlords who defied the order faced no threat of municipal penalty.

The new legislation opts to rein in the practice by taking a harsher stance, elevating the rental of unsafe units to a misdemeanor violation — a crime which could carry a maximum fine of $500 and imprisonment of up to 30 days, according to the proposed ordinance. It will also require landlords to pay damages to renters left homeless due to condemnation ordered by the City.

According to the ordinance, offending building owners would be compelled to provide financial compensation equal to “double the monthly rent, pro-rated for every day of displacement” until the end of the lease or the problems causing the “unsafe” designation are resolved.

The damages are intended to both incentivize safer housing and to reimburse renters who suffer “hardships” during the process of forced abandonment, such as “finding alternative housing [and] making arrangements to move belongs to new housing,” the resolution wrote.

Now, renters leaving unfit housing no longer have to worry about getting their money back,

City Prosecutor Robert Sarachan, a staunch supporter of the just-passed changes, argued to the Common Council on Wednesday, the Ithaca Voice reported.

“Now [renters] can say, ‘Boy, if I do have to leave, theoretically I’ll be reasonably fairly compensated for it,’” said Sarachan.

At the same time, harsher punishments for misbehaving landlords will “provide clearer definitions to aid enforcement and additional incentives for compliance,” Sarachan wrote in a letter to the Council.

In a December email to The Sun, Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) of Ithaca Common Council expressed the concern that solely seeking compliance “rather than penalties” would do little to stop repeat offenders among landlords.

Steve Smith (D-4th Ward), whose district includes Collegetown, argued that the changes could be a boon to the over 7,000 Cornell undergraduates who annually seek off-campus housing — some of whom have found themselves stuck in sub-standard or even illegal living conditions.

Last year, two Cornell students were forced to abandon their house — and temporarily seek refuge in a library — amidst no hot water, overflowing toilets and insufficient heating in winter, The Sun previously reported.

The students criticized the Ithaca Building Department, the agency charged with overseeing landlords, for inaction. But under the previous legislation, the agency could do little more to enforce codes than send a written warning.

“The principal concern should be the safety of the people,” Smith said at Wednesday’s Council meeting. “It was the right thing to do to guarantee the safety of their tenants and make sure their competitors guarantee the safety of their tenants.”