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A proposal passed by the Ithaca Common Council could cancel three months of rent.

April 6, 2020

Phone Calls Flood in as Tenants Demand Rent Freeze

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Between March 30 and April 1, the Ithaca Common Council received over 1,200 calls from Ithaca’s tenants asking for a rent freeze amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

This “phone zap,” organized by the Ithaca Rent Freeze Campaign and its supporters, was a way for Ithaca renters to advocate for the need of a rent freeze during COVID-19.

“This is sort of a unique situation, especially for organizing people because we can’t leave our homes,” said Genevieve Rand, a member of the Ithaca Rent Freeze Campaign.

The Ithaca Rent Freeze Campaign, was formed with co-organizers of the Ithaca Tenants Union –– an organization, created by three industrial and labor relations students, that believes “students and full-time residents alike are almost categorically overcharged and underserved, [their] rights regularly violated” according to the Ithaca Tenants Union Facebook page.

Rand and other co-organizers from the campaign and the Ithaca Tenants Union took advantage of the quarantine using the “phone zap” method.

“All of us have been running our work off of our phones and our computers,” Rand said, pointing to a new reality that is true for students, faculty and members of the Ithaca community alike.

Despite the inability to perform a sit-in or a mass protest at a public venue, the group aimed to “essentially occupy [Ithaca Common Council’s] phones and make their phones unusable because they’re getting so many phone calls all day for several days in a row,” Rand said.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st ward) received over 100 phone calls throughout the days of the “phone zap.”

“I fully recognize their efforts and I’m very sympathetic to their goals,” Brock said. However, the phone zap resulted in her voicemail crashing.

“I was disappointed that they did not reach out in a collaborative manner because I would have loved to see the energy that they used with us to be directed in a way that actually would have been more productive,” Brock said, describing the situation as an “ultimatum.”

Rand and other co-organizers of the campaign also started a petition  that is addressed to the Ithaca Common Council, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, Ithaca City Legislature and city attorney, Aaron Levine. So far, over 4,600 members of the Ithaca community have signed the petition and the numbers are growing everyday.

The housing crisis has also taken a toll on Cornell students who live off-campus and work on campus.

“[COVID-19] is something that is completely unforeseen,” said Jonathan Mondschein ’22. He lived off-campus in Collegetown until COVID-19 forced him to return to his home in New Jersey.

“A lot of kids, for instance, who worked the dining halls…on campus research, or any job that they’re doing, they’re just stuck in this situation where they don’t know what they can really do, and they can’t really then afford rent,” Mondschein said. “If they’re not getting allotted an amount from Cornell or if they’re parents aren’t helping them to pay.”

As an individual who lost her own job from the COVID-19 outbreak and knows of many others who have lost theirs and are struggling to pay rent for next month, Rand was inspired to create the Ithaca Rent Freeze petition for those in need during devastating circumstances.

The United States Census Bureau reported that 73.6 percent of housing in Ithaca is renter-occupied. In addition, 54 percent of Cornell students live off campus according to the Cornell Housing webpage.

“Our proposal was that the Common Council add a clause to the Emergency Preparedness section of the city code that would allow the mayor to declare restrictions on business activity surrounding rental income,” Rand said. “And then our hope was that the mayor would use that emergency power to [freeze rent in Ithaca].”