As Cornell’s shift to online classes and students’ departures from Ithaca continue to impact the local economy, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick ’09 called for a rent and mortgage freeze on Thursday.
The mayor said he feared the COVID-19 outbreak could cause “not only a health and financial crisis, but a crisis of homelessness.”
“As the current health crisis unfolds, I am deeply concerned about the millions who have lost income and are in danger of losing their housing,” Myrick wrote on Twitter.
As lawmakers in Washington discuss sending payments directly to Americans, Myrick added that the state and federal government should temporarily relieve rent and mortgage payments and reimburse landlords for “any resulting financial pressures.”
In the City of Ithaca, 73 percent of households are renters, according to a 2015 Tompkins County report (The rate nationwide was 36.6 percent in 2016, according to a Pew report).
We need a rent freeze and a mortgage freeze.
As the current health crisis unfolds, I am deeply concerned about the millions who have lost income and are in danger of losing their housing.
We could be facing not only a health and financial crisis, but a crisis of homelessness
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) March 19, 2020
Costa Lambrou ’16, whose family runs Lambrou Real Estate and rents apartments to around 400 Cornell students, said a rent freeze would have to be accompanied by help for landlords.
“A rent freeze really scares me because my mortgage doesn’t stop, and my property taxes don’t stop,” Lambrou said, adding that he supports Myrick’s calls for mortgage and real estate tax freezes in conjunction with a rent freeze.
Denise Thompson, Cornell’s Off-Campus Living Manager, sent an email to students on Sunday with an Ithaca Landlord Alert Memorandum. Signed by five local attorneys, the memo encouraged area landlords to be “flexible given the unusual circumstances,” but that landlords “cannot simply allow [tenants] to breach their leases.”
Many Cornell students who left Ithaca in response to the University’s cancellation of in-person classes are locked in to leases that extend up until or through the summer. These students are stuck paying two-plus months of rent for apartments, some of which will sit empty until August, or longer.
Some protection for renters has already come from Albany: Earlier this week, a New York State judge banned evictions, suspending eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders until further notice.
The Ithaca Tenants Union — a newly-formed group led by three School of Industrial and Labor Relations students — is circulating a petition calling for a rent freeze, arguing that students’ departure and a slowdown in business means “money has ceased its flow into the pockets of Ithaca’s most vulnerable — and we need immediate action to stop it from bleeding out.”
While the ITU called for local legislative action to freeze rents, Myrick — who has also called for federal intervention to help small businesses and temporary universal basic income — wrote on Thursday said that his emergency powers as mayor don’t allow him to freeze rents.
“That’s why it’s imperative for our state and national leaders to find a way to halt rents, freeze mortgages, and create breathing room,” he tweeted.
Calls for direct payments to Americans have come from lawmakers across the political spectrum and have the support of the White House. President Donald Trump — who is also seeking $500 billion to support businesses — said on Wednesday that talks surrounding direct payments have been “very bipartisan,” The New York Times reported.
Although students are stuck paying rent through the end of the school year, Lambrou said his company is providing a rent freeze-like policy to its commercial tenants.
In addition to owning several student apartment buildings in Collegetown, Lambrou Real Estate has commercial tenants including Mehak Indian Cuisine and Level B, a popular Collegetown bar.
“[Commercial tenants] are getting hit the hardest by far, at least in the short term,” Lambrou said, adding that Collegetown restaurants and companies went from bringing in revenue one day to zero or little revenue the next. April and May are two of the busiest months for local businesses, which rely on Cornell students for huge chunks of their annual revenue.
Lambrou, whose family business has been around for over 50 years, said the company values “the lights on the ground floor” and has subsidized rents for commercial tenants for many years.
“I’ve already told all my commercial tenants … to pay what they can, and nothing is fine … I’d rather have them take care of their employees at this point.”
Many tenants of Collegetown apartments are staying in Ithaca, according to Lambrou. He said most of his apartments are either occupied or being used by students for storage. Lambrou said he’s been scrambling to provide free storage to current and incoming tenants who didn’t have time to figure out shipping plans.
Lambrou added that students and parents have been understanding and cooperative amid sudden changes, and said the COVID-19 outbreak-caused changes will have larger and longer-lasting effects on locals.
“I think that the rent freeze does apply quite a bit more to local residents who got hit really hard,” he said. “With the college students gone, all the restaurants are closing [and] there [are] thousands of people without a job. … If this [policy] even mildly works for them, then we need to pursue it.”