“We’re going to try to have as normal a meeting as possible,” said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 at the beginning of the Common Council’s inaugural virtual meeting. The Common Council gathered on Wednesday night via Zoom to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Ithacans and the city’s economy.
The meeting, which was live-streamed to Youtube for public viewing, began with words of appreciation for the Tompkins County Health Department, as well as measured optimism about the pay-off of stringent health precautions taken in recent weeks.
“Our efforts of social isolation seem to be working,” Myrick said, citing the slowed spread of the disease over the last four to five days. In Ithaca, one person remains hospitalized for COVID-19, after another patient was discharged. In Tompkins County, 80 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday evening.
Common Council solicited public comments prior to the meeting, which were summarized by the mayor.
Myrick said that many who submitted comments were renters, anxious that they will not be able to keep up with their rent payments. A large number of comments were also submitted by landlords, who too worry for their own financial security.
The Ithaca Tenants Union and other local activists have pressured Myrick and Common Council members to instate a city-wide rent freeze. As of Wednesday evening, 4,550 people signed COVID-19: Ithaca Rent Freeze Now!, a petition released by the activists which demands that rents for Ithacans are frozen “immediately until the COVID-19 crisis passes.”
Seph Murtagh (D-2nd ward) brought a “Resolution of Support for Ithaca Tenants and Landlords,” which urges the New York State government to support tenants and landlords suffering financial hardship, but did not call for a local rent freeze.
The resolution passed unanimously.
According to Ari Lavine, Ithaca City Attorney, the city is unable to enact a local rent freeze for three reasons.
The first reason is an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) that prohibits municipalities from issuing emergency or executive orders relating to the current crisis without approval from the State Department of Health. The second reason is that a rent freeze that would “wipe those rents off the books” is “legally questionable,” Lavine said.
Lavine said that the final constraint on a local rent freeze is the city’s current financial trouble, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
“It would be more tenable if it were the government making landlords full,” Labine said. “But the city’s finances are in taters.”
Myrick added that if the Common Council did go ahead with a local rent freeze, the city would face lawsuits that it would be poorly positioned to win. However, the mayor said that he supports a nationwide program to help support renters during this crisis, a position which Myrick made public in a March 19 tweet.
New York State has already made steps toward protecting renters during the ongoing crisis. On March 16, New York State Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Malks suspended eviction proceedings for both residential and commercial tenants until further notice.
Murtagh expressed that renters who remain financially stable enough to pay at least part of their rent should do so, in order to help support landlords who themselves are likely to weather financial difficulties.
In Tompkins County, the majority of landlords operate on a small scale, managing ten units or fewer, according to Murtagh.
An economic report from City Controller Steven Thayer, emphasized that while the long-term economic impact of COVID-19 on the city is difficult to predict, preliminary estimates suggest an annual revenue loss for the city between 15 percent and 30 percent — between $9 million and $20 million.
“These are obviously huge numbers to absorb,” Thayer said. “In a nutshell, this is not great news.” The city will take a particularly hard hit in lost sales taxes, which typically account for around 25 percent of the city’s total revenue, according to Thayer.
At this time, the city has yet to receive direct aid from New York State, Thayer said.
Alongside worries of the financial woes to come, Common Council members expressed a sense of shared concern and camaraderie with their constituents.
“We are all experiencing anxiety on a personal level, professional level, social level, economic level, but we are definitely all in this together,” said Laura Lewis (D-5th ward). “I want the public to know that we are listening to you and taking the steps appropriate and possible.”