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Ithaca Tenant's Union successfully pushed for a bill that allowed for a rent freeze due to COVID-19. Although the bill has yet to be implemented, ITU is now pushing additional initiatives forward.

October 4, 2020

With Rent Bill on Hold, Ithaca Tenants Union Moves Forward with New Initiatives

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In June, Ithaca’s Common Council passed a resolution that promised to do what no other city in the nation had before: Request authorization to cancel three months’ rent for its citizens.

The measure, which was approved on a 6-4 vote with the support of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, asked the city government to seek approval from the New York State Department of Health to grant the mayor power to forgive three months of rental payments.

As unemployment skyrocketed amid one of the sharpest economic downturns in American history, the Cornell undergraduate-led Ithaca Tenants’ Union first began its campaign to fight for rent forgiveness over March, April and May. After weeks of sustained advocacy — most notably through “phone zaps” to local politicians — the union was able to count on the support of the mayor and several council members.

But despite its much-publicized rollout, Albany hasn’t approved the resolution, and it is unclear how seriously it was ever considered.

“We’ve been trying to get an update from the mayor, we’ve been trying to get in contact with the State Department of Health, and we’re just largely being ignored,” Liel Sterling ’21, ITU co-founder, told The Sun.

However, this hasn’t stopped the union from continuing its advocacy for renters’ rights. Over the summer, the union organized several protests in July and August to raise awareness about evictions occurring as a result of the pandemic. This semester, it has introduced a number of other initiatives to help Ithacans in need of rent assistance.

One initiative is its eviction tip line. As the state eviction moratorium — passed by executive order in March and extended in August and September — is set to expire on Oct. 20, the tenants union has established a phone line for those to call if they are in fear of being evicted. The union will then provide advice and support for callers.

“The Ithaca Tenants Union will stand with you as you face housing displacement, regardless of whether you’re protected under the Center for Disease Control’s moratorium, regardless of how far into the eviction process you are, and regardless of whether you’re behind on rent,” the ITU wrote in a press release.

Once the moratorium is lifted, renters — which comprise 73 percent of Ithacan residents — will have to make up their missed rent and remain at risk of eviction.

“We can’t rely on Cuomo or the CDC’s inadequate eviction moratoriums to protect us,” the press release read.

Another hotline that the union has established is a legal housing hotline, which is staffed by volunteers that offer guidance to concerned renters. Over the summer, the hotline mostly involved quick advice taken from those answering the calls; according to Sterling, it took over 100 cases.

The initiative is starting to expand this fall. The law school has taken up a class, LAW 7854: Tenants Advocacy Practicum, to prepare law students to provide callers “full scope representation rather than just brief advice.”

The union was started in March by three ILR students hoping “to spread awareness about [tenants’ rights], and make sure that they’re upheld across the board,” according to co-founder Elijah Fox ’21.