April 18, 2022

MEHLER | Student Tenants’ Rights Shifting in Your Favor

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After legislation passed the Ithaca Common Council on April 6, students’ renting rights are changing in their favor.  Take advantage of a rare opportunity to improve your off-campus living situation.

 After joining the Ithaca Common Council in October 2021, I spent hundreds of hours talking with thousands of students, homeowners and longtime renters in Collegetown. Across a multitude of issues that constituents shared, housing repeatedly came up again and again. The issue of urban housing has more complexities than can be explained in a few hundred words or solved in a few years by a few elected officials. But I believe that the role of public officials is to listen to our constituents’ needs and find creative ways to make life better. As city officials, we face a multitude of restrictions from both the State Legislature and from Congress, yet we remain the first line of defense for helping those that live within our city limits. For housing, I sought to ease the burden that students face in finding a place to live, and as of April 6, we’ve made some fantastic progress.

For the Class of 2025 and all those after, Cornell now requires that all first-year and second-year students live in on-campus housing. While some freshmen may want that taste of living on your own for their sophomore year, I believe Cornell has made the right move in protecting students from the overly competitive Ithaca housing market. In a city of 32,000 people, almost two-thirds are students; half of those students rent from landlords in the City of Ithaca. The timetable for off-campus housing is unnecessarily tight. For all parents, future-students and current freshmen, understanding the old timetable is important to understand how much of a change is coming to Cornellians.

In the old system, landlords approached new Cornellians within their first two weeks of Cornell and explained their options: you can go for the Cornell housing lottery and maybe get on-campus housing in March or secure an off-campus apartment right now in August. On its face, the fear of going for on-campus housing in March and then not getting anything is scary. However, what wasn’t said was that sophomore housing was guaranteed, the lottery existed only to determine which specific dorm you were assigned to. In response, many freshmen were pressured into finding roommates within their first couple weeks at Cornell, paying the first month’s rent and a down payment of thousands of dollars, and agreeing to live in an apartment for a year, almost a year in advance.

If the premise of finding roommates, paying thousands of dollars and agreeing to live in an apartment a year in advance sounds crazy, that’s because it is.  Fortunately, a host of changes have occurred. Firstly, the New York State Legislature passed the New York Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which eases payment rules for tenants. Secondly, as previously noted, Cornell now mandates that sophomores live in on-campus housing, meaning that freshmen will not be pressured into making rapid decisions until learning more about the Ithaca housing market. Finally, I passed an Amendment to Ithaca City Code Chapter 258-10(A) through the Ithaca Common Council on April 6 that takes effect May 31.

The new law does two key things. First, all renters, including all student-renters, are legally entitled to 120 days before their landlord shows the apartment to new people, before the landlord asks the tenant to renew the apartment, or before the landlord signs with new tenants; Second, if tenants and landlords mutually agree to waive this 120 day waiting period, the waiver must include the following language on the first page of the contract:

As per Chapter 258-10(A) of the City of Ithaca City Code, landlords shall provide a minimum 120 days’ written notice to current tenants of a residential unit before doing any of the follow:

  1. Renewing the current rental agreement
  2. Showing the residential unit to prospective new tenants or otherwise suggesting to prospective new tenants or otherwise suggesting to prospective tenants that the unit available for rent
  3. Entering into a rental agreement with new tenants

By initialing here ____, I fully understand and willingly waive my rights to 120 days’ written notice in advance of the above.

This statement may seem like legal jargon, but its inclusion in all contracts is something you, as a student renter, are entitled to. You are entitled to 120 days. 120 days may sound like a lot, but do the math: 120 days after a lease starting on June 1 means that you have to decide about renewing by October 1; those with August leases, you have until December. You and the landlord may waive the 120 days if you both decide to, but a discussion about why you are waiving the days should be your first question when asking about renting somewhere. Starting May 31, if you sign a contract without this language, your landlord is not following the law.

I believe every renter and every student in Collegetown and throughout the City of Ithaca is entitled to think about whether they want to renew a lease without pressure from their landlord so early on. I changed our local laws to reflect that, and I believe that every renter in the city should take advantage of laws working to give tenants more time to make decisions.

Patrick J. Mehler ‘23 (he/him) is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] The Mehl-Man Delivers runs every other Tuesday this semester.