This post has been updated.
With the COVID-19 outbreak requiring most New York State residents to stay home and stripping thousands of workers of their jobs, activists are calling for a rent freeze to protect Ithacans who have lost income.
The Ithaca Tenants Union and a group of local activists is pressuring Ithaca’s mayor and Common Council members ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting. An online petition circulated by the ITU has over 4,300 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
“With massive job losses already beginning now, how can we be expected to retroactively pay our rent when this crisis is over?” reads the petition, which demands Ithaca rents be “frozen by city legislative action immediately until the COVID-19 crisis passes.”
Genevieve Rand, a local organizer and a leader of the local push for a rent freeze, told The Sun that the issue is important to thousands of Ithacans, many of whom may have lost their income in the wake of COVID-19 closures.
The campaign wrote a letter to Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 on March 22, calling on him to institute a rent freeze through the powers of the Common Council. In the letter, organizers called on Myrick to encourage the council to introduce an amendment to Chapter 48 of the City Code that would allow the mayor “to restrict business activity involving rental income during a declared emergency.”
Myrick called for a rent and mortgage freeze on March 19, and wrote on Twitter on March 23 calling for federal action.
“We need … the federal government to fund a rent freeze and a debt jubilee,” he wrote. “That is — forgiveness of student loans, credit card debt, and small biz loans.”
Myrick responded to Ithaca Rent Freeze’s letter in one of his own, stating that he was prohibited from issuing emergency orders, and believed that a rent freeze should be accompanied by help for landlords.
Myrick has previously tweeted that the state and national governments should “temporarily relieve people of their rent and mortgage payments” and reimburse landlords “for any resulting financial pressures.”
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
Myrick was supportive of the calls for a rent freeze in early organizational phone calls, Rand said, and wrote on Twitter last week that while he supports the idea, it was not within his mayoral jurisdiction, reasoning he restated in his reply to the letter.
However, the leaders of Ithaca Rent Freeze, after consulting with professors at Cornell, said they do believe there is a way to accomplish the goal — by having the Common Council expand Myrick’s emergency powers in order to enact the move.
To this end, the campaign is hosting three days of call-ins to the mayor and Common Council members before the council’s meeting on Wednesday, hoping to “flood the phone lines” with public support for a rent freeze.
“The moratorium on evictions in New York State was a great first step — but for many of us, the money to pay missed rent will not exist once the moratorium is lifted,” the campaign’s organizers wrote on Facebook. “Hundreds to thousands of Ithacans will face eviction.”
As of March 16, all eviction proceedings in New York State were suspended until further notice as part of a string of measures taken to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Cuomo, when asked about those pushing for a rent freeze during the coronavirus outbreak, points back to the state’s no-eviction order.
“I think our policy covers it,” Cuomo said. “No evictions for non-payment of rent. And then we’ll see where we are and how long this goes on.”
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) March 30, 2020
Liel Sterling ’21, one of three School of Industrial and Labor Relations students who leads the newly-formed ITU, told The Sun that the campaign for a rent freeze was keeping focus on the Common Council. The ITU and Tompkins County Workers’ Center have been at the forefront of pushes for worker and renter protections in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Tenants need their rent money, right now, to purchase groceries, prescriptions, medical care, and other essential needs, and should not feel pressured to save what money they have — or to seek employment that places their health at risk — simply to pay their rent,” the Ithaca Tenants Union wrote in its reply to Myrick.
Myrick told The Ithaca Voice that “the federal government is the only institution big enough to foot the bill.” Although the Common Council could expand Myrick’s powers, the mayor wouldn’t be able to use those emergency powers because Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) is taking an approach that doesn’t allow mayors to make emergency declarations, the Ithaca Journal reported.
Costa Lambrou ’16, whose family runs Lambrou Real Estate and rents apartments to around 400 Cornell students, told The Sun on March 19 that 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.
Lambrou said that closings and slowdowns at restaurants and other Collegetown businesses have hit Ithaca residents hard, leaving many without the income necessary to pay rent.
“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.”
The ITU said that if the rent freeze was enacted, it would shift focus to advocating for rent subsidies at the state and federal level to provide relief for landlords — but rejected the idea that landlords should be able to maintain business as usual when many members of the community were jobless.
Seventy-three percent of Ithaca households are renters, according to a 2015 Tompkins County report, significantly above the nationwide rate of 36.6 percent in 2016. The petition argues that the “fragility” caused by home quarantines — and the departure of college students, the drivers of the city’s service economy — has led to businesses closing, leaving “already struggling workers out on the street.”