The Ithaca Tenants Union held a ‘court packing’ rally the morning of Jan. 27 at Ithaca City Court in protest of 14 households up for eviction.
The event came after a New York State eviction and foreclosure moratorium recently expired, putting a larger number of New York residents at risk of eviction. Previously, tenants could fill out a hardship declaration that could postpone eviction proceedings until after Jan. 15.
ITU is an organization that formed at the start of the pandemic to protect the legal rights of Ithacan tenants. Because there is no right to counsel — the right of a criminal defendant to have a lawyer assist in defense, even if they cannot afford an attorney — for tenants, the ITU often connects them with the Tenants Advocacy Practicum at the Cornell Law School for free legal advice and assistance with landlord negotiations.
The ITU became involved in eviction proceedings around Ithaca, such as the 14 houses tried in court last Thursday, because of the community struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. The ITU started after the pandemic caused job loss and financial struggles, leading to increased evictions in Tompkins County.
Last week, ITU used the protest technique of court packing — crowding the scene of an eviction court case — to provide community oversight over courts and show solidarity with at-risk tenants.
“We encourage any tenants who want to support other tenants from losing their homes for no good reason to speak at [ITU] meetings,” said Sarah Curless, an Ithaca Tenants Union representative. “Anyone who is a tenant in Tompkins County is already a member.”
While court packing usually involves a rally in court buildings, Ithaca City Court COVID-19 restrictions prevent large groups inside the court house. As a result, over 30 supporters of ITU gathered outside the courthouse in frigid temperatures, with a low of eight degrees on Thursday morning.
Curless noted that the cold temperatures served as a reminder of the dangers of evicting a tenant in the midst of an Ithaca winter.
“It was really, really cold on Thursday. That was an important thing that people pointed out in their speeches,” said Curless. “We’re only out here for two hours, but if you’re homeless, you’re outside all the time.”
Two out of the 14 households were evicted on the day of the IFC court-packing rally.
“In terms of numbers, we were happy with that result,” Curless said. “The most ideal would be no one gets evicted.”
Despite ITU’s small victory, Curless reminds Ithacans of the health and safety dangers that evicted residents can face, particularly now.
“Especially with COVID-19, a lot of the places that people who are unhoused could go aren’t as available anymore,” Curless said. “It’s hard to find a warm, safe place to be if you don’t have a house.”