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March 6, 2020

As Students Struggle to Find Housing, Three ILR Juniors Form New Ithaca Tenants Union

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With spring semester comes the end of housing contracts — and, for many students, a frantic search for a place to live.

For the 48 percent of Cornellians who have turned to off-campus housing, the annual ritual of scrambling to find an apartment at a reasonable price is all well too known. Even after finding a place, many residents report facing poor building maintenance and lop-sided leases.

Attempting to tackle the struggles of scoring a lease in a competitive rental market, School of Industrial and Labor Relations juniors Elijah Fox ’21, Kataryna Restrepo ’21 and Liel Sterling ’21 announced the Ithaca Tenants Union on March 2 — an organization that aims to rebalance the power dynamic between tenants and landlords.

“Through collective power and organization, we [the Ithaca Tenants Union] are able to have a unit whose full time job is to achieve the tenants’ interests within their relationship with landlords,” Fox told The Sun.

Conceptually, a tenants union is similar to a workers union in that it seeks to unite individuals for a common cause. But rather than bargaining for higher wages or safer working conditions, a tenants union advocates for renters’ rights, like the right to a liveable apartment, privacy and heating.

To that end, the Ithaca Tenants Union works toward educating tenants on their rights, and, in turn, coordinate collective action against housing violations.

As Fox explained, “step one is to spread awareness about [tenants’ rights], and make sure that they’re upheld across the board.”

In Ithaca, tenants can face conditions like poor building maintenance, overcharged security deposits and property entry without 24-hour notice. While these issues often constitute direct violations of tenants’ rights, many renters are not aware of their rights, or how to exercise them.

For example, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 prevents landlords from charging more than one month’s rent for security deposits. Yet despite these new regulations, excessive deposits remain a problem, according to Restrepo.

To avoid violations of such protections, the union teaches tenants to “spot those [violations] and use legal language to approach their landlord,” said Restrepo, who posited that if tenants are aware of their rights, they can be more proactive in reporting infringements — preventing future housing violations by keeping landlords in check.

Systematic problems, like high rent, however, represent a far more challenging barrier to tackle. According to Sterling, rising housing costs — Ithaca regularly ranks as one of the state’s most expensive — are difficult to address, inevitably tied to limited supply amidst an overabundance of college students.

“I think that the presence of Cornell and Ithaca College in Ithaca has driven up the cost of housing infinitely. And something that we’re thinking about is how to address those issues with the University,” Sterling said.

Sterling also explained that the high cost of living on-campus allows off-campus housing to charge similarly high prices, affecting not only students, but also professors and local residents.

As a result, Sterling said, asking Cornell to reduce the cost of on-campus housing is one of the first steps in lowering off-campus pricing.

Because the tenants union cannot simply bargain or negotiate for lower rent, Fox added that they would first and foremost address the “most egregious actors,” landlords that he said charge “exorbitant rents for decaying buildings and poor treatment of their tenants.”

By focusing on individual cases, the union hopes to gradually make progress in improving rent inflation in Ithaca.

The founding of the tenants union, however, was met with some criticism from the Landlords Association of Tompkins County, a group that represents the interests of area landlords. In an Ithaca Times article, representative Kayla Lane expressed her concern that the formation of the union would “make the relationship between the two sides more adversarial.”

But Sterling objected to this “us vs. them” mentality, stating that the union is “only looking at landlords who aren’t complying with the laws that exist.” Fox also pointed out that the very existence of the landlord’s association means that a tenants union should exist as well.

As of now, there are an estimated 30 to 40 members in the union, which hopes to organize more tenants in order to increase the strength of the organization and ensure that Ithaca as a whole is represented.

“We definitely want leadership to represent all the different interest groups in the city of Ithaca, which includes full time residents as much as students,” Fox said.

The Ithaca Tenants’ Union plans to hold meetings as more people join, and eventually hope to acquire a space to hold town hall-like forums. Currently, the group is working on starting a call center as a resource for people to learn about their rights and ask questions.

Longer-term, the union plans to take on even more ambitious projects for the future: “We’d like to see new rights come into play… like the right to counsel during an eviction trial,” Fox said.