Ari Dubow / Sun City Editor

The Ithaca Common Council passed a resolution that would work towards cancelling three months rent, at a virtual meeting on June 3.

June 4, 2020

Common Council Urges NYS to Allow Rent Cancellations, Small Landlord Protections

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Following months of uncertainty as tenants struggled to make rent, the Ithaca Common Council narrowly passed a resolution in favor of canceling three months rent — which would need to be approved by the New York State Department of Health .

The resolution also urged the State Senate to pass Senate Bill 8190 which would provide financial support to small landlords.

The Wednesday resolution urges the DOH to grant the mayor of Ithaca power to cancel rent and provide financial assistance to small landlords and is the first step in materializing rent cancellation.

If supported by the state government, Ithaca would be the only municipality in the state to acquire this power, according to Mayor Svante Myrick ’09.

The resolution passed 5-4, with Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), George McGonigal (D-1st Ward), Rob Gearhardt (D-3rd ward) and Donna Fleming (D-3rd ward) voting against the resolution.

In the resolution, the rent forgiven will be the rent from the three months preceding June 20, when the first state-wide eviction moratorium ends. And under the resolution, the mayor’s actions would have no direct bearing on state policy as a whole, or any other municipalities.

“We are going for extraordinary powers for our local government, but it’s only because we’re in such an extraordinary time,” said Stephen Smith (D-4th ward), adding that the resolution would communicate to the state government that city officials are willing to act locally in the absence of aid from the state or federal government.

The resolution was brought to the Common Council by Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd ward), in part through conversations with the Ithaca Tenants Union.

Common Council members agreed that protecting those tenants and small landlords financially injured by the pandemic is a priority. But, several council members expressed concerns about the negative indirect consequences of canceling rent, suggesting that if rent were canceled, broader actions like mortgage cancellation should be considered as well.

“I don’t understand why we would want to take the pain and economic hardship of one group of our citizens and put it on another group of our citizens,” McGonigal said, adding that the resolution contained several ambiguities — which landlords count as small landlords, and to what extent landlords are obligated to provide maintenance to residences of tenants who have not paid rent.

Placing greater financial burden on landlords would put painters, roofers, handypeople and others out of work, according to McGonigal.

City attorney Ari Lavine questioned the legality of broader action such as mortgage cancellation being taken by a local government, saying that an emergency order from a mayor to suspend mortgage payments would not hold up in court.

Common Council also approved the previously proposed Community Development Block Grant Programming emergency rental assistance, which will cover the rent of 49 households for three months.

The meeting also included a report from City Controller Steve Thayer. Thayer noted the city’s widespread financial losses, citing a loss of $120,000 from building inspection fees, $106,000 in revenue from fines, $86,000 from trash tag sales and $550,000 from canceled parking fees, which city officials are considering reinstating in waves.

Thayer added that since last month’s emergency furloughs of city employees, the city has saved $207,000, and expects to save even more as some city employees switch to cheaper healthcare plans as of the beginning of this month.

Looking toward the remainder of the year, Thayer foresaw tightening cash flow for the city. Because the city receives annual aid from the state government in mid-December, when cash flow is particularly low, any weakening of that aid will be particularly concerning.

Anticipating the possibility of students returning to local colleges and universities, the Common Council approved the purchase of one Rheonix Encompass MDx Workstation, technology that allows for efficient testing of COVID-19 on a mass scale.

The equipment costs $55,000, 75 percent of which would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. New York State would reimburse the city for half of the remaining cost, leaving the city to pay $6,875.

According to Myrick, efficient testing capabilities are a priority as Ithaca College and Cornell — if the campus opens in the fall — plan to test all students on a regular basis.

During the meeting, which happened hours after a Cornellian-organized protest against police brutality and systemic racism, council members expressed appreciation for the activists’ efforts.

“I was very proud of our community for coming out and expressing anger, and doing that in a way that we could all listen,” Mohelnhoff said, adding that it is her responsibility as an elected official to elevate the voices of people of color.

“Those insurrections and those uprisings are demanding real change,” said Myrick, who also supported the June 3 protest in Ithaca. “Those demands will reach this body. That passion has got to be translated into policy.”