May 3, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Support of Tenants’ Rights Needs Less Bark and More Bite

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In my two years of being a student at Cornell, I’ve fallen in love with the people of Ithaca, in part because of the city’s dedication to inclusivity and general progressivism. When asked to describe Ithaca, I often say that Ithaca is a place where every trinket store and coffee shop will have a sign that says “all are welcome,” and everyone will actually be welcome. I find the crux of Ithaca’s charm to be in its honesty and genuine commitment to its values; Ithacans’ history of supporting the little guy goes to show that Ithaca means what it says when it purports to be a progressive city, and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I find that to be gorgeous. As the newly-elected President of the Cornell Democrats, it’s something I’m proud to say about the place I now call home, and a characteristic I try to embody in all of my work. And yet, the politicians that claim to represent us don’t seem to have mastered this skill. The actions I’ve seen from Ithacan government officials don’t back up the progressive values they tote. This toothless political posturing is most exemplified in the indefinite tabling of the Right to Renew Leases bill by Ithacan Common Council members.

The Right to Renew Leases bill, also known as a Good Cause Eviction bill, is exactly what it sounds like: a law that would ensure that any tenant who has fulfilled their duties of tenancy, like paying rent, could renew their lease and continue living in their home. As of right now, at the end of your lease, your landlord is able to kick you out of your home for no reason at all, aptly known as a no-cause eviction. The lack of this common sense protection presents a multitude of problems for Ithacans of all stripes. In addition to making the process of finding housing unnecessarily competitive and limiting, no-cause evictions have — and continue to — be a method for landlords to discriminate against, and ultimately displace, our most vulnerable. 

Ithaca’s Anti-Displacement Learning Network noted that, as of 2018, 54 percent of evictions were filed against Black Ithacans. These discriminatory eviction practices have thoroughly squashed the once prosperous Black community in Ithaca, pushing 49 percent and 51 percent of the Black population of Southside Ithaca and Titus Falls, respectively, out to lower-opportunity neighborhoods since 1990, according to Ithaca’s 2017 Assessment of Fair Housing. Of course, the vulnerability of tenants and their rights is a problem not only for Ithacans of color, but of most of Ithaca; Ithaca is unquestionably a tenant town, with 74 percent of Ithacans renting their housing. As the incoming President of the Cornell Democrats, I find the idea of landlords, representing a tiny minority of city residents, deciding without justification whether or not most of Ithaca will be homeless, is in a word, undemocratic. 

And yet, some of Ithaca’s Common Council aligning with the Democratic party, such as now acting Mayor Laura Lewis, Alderwoman Donna Fleming (D-3rd ward) and Alderman Patrick Mehler ’23 (D-4th ward), have not taken direct action to right this large power imbalance, at least for a little while longer. Upon the hearing of the bill on Nov. 3, 2021, Alderman Mehler, having the final decision as an inadvertent tie-breaker, failed to read about the bill enough to feel comfortable voting on the matter. Mehler cited the very stressful mitigating circumstances on campus (the week of the bomb threat and active shooter alert) as the reason he failed to do his alderperson duties to know about forthcoming law. This inability to do work in crisis is by all means understandable to me. However, this active inaction to not vote still ultimately placed the most vulnerable Ithacans at a risk more real than any threat. 

Furthermore, Ithacans have been publicly demanding the city to receive it as has been reported on in The Sun since at least June 2021, which was before Mehler was an alderman, but not before Mehler was an Ithacan — if he does consider himself to be so. In a move seemingly aligned with the Democratic trait of open-mindedness, Alderman Mehler, as well as Alderman Murlagh, chose to table this legislation at least for another month as opposed to outright shutting the bill down, with Mehler saying “I would not like to see this bill die either, I genuinely want to give it more time.” It has been six months since this discussion occurred, and with Right to Renew held captive in bureaucratic purgatory and Alderman Mehler only becoming more critical of the bill, it seems that Ithacans have only suffered more from some of the Council members’ indecisiveness. In fact, there would have been more hope for Good Cause eviction laws if the Council simply voted no, for then the people of Ithaca could reintroduce a similar bill. Tabling the Right to Renew Lease law is just another example of Ithacan politicians mimicking progressive mannerisms and superficial characteristics: hearing something out without following through with the only Democratic value that fundamentally matters: a commitment to actually helping people. 

This is, sadly, not the only example of tenants’ rights being a topic in which political posturing appears to be a higher priority than helping everyday people in their daily lives. Even recently, Alderman Mehler used his platform in The Sun to bring home the good news regarding the Amendment to Ithaca City Code Chapter 258-10(A), whose main goal is to provide renters with 120 days before they can be asked to renew their lease, or before their landlord signs with new tenants. On the surface, I would support this amendment, as it attempts to equalize imbalanced power dynamics between tenants and landlords, albeit timidly. 

The amendment becomes lackluster in my eyes, however, upon analyzing the bill and discovering that the amendment has no written enforcement mechanism if this minimum number of days allotted is not respected. To clarify, if your landlord does not respect the 120 days before you are allowed to be asked to renew your lease, there is no systemized channel or precedent you can use to penalize your landlord. This, coupled with the police’s frequent aversion to holding landlords accountable, as the police often accept the role of arbiters of landlords’ gentrifying instincts, the Amendment to Ithaca City Code Chapter 258-10(A) becomes effectively mute. This does not even touch on the rampant and well-documented epidemic of landlords lying about tenants’ rights, as well as tenants’ ignorance of their rights, that already make amendments like this difficult to practice in the real world. Context, in turn, transforms the amendment into a hollow suggestion to the landlords who were likely never going to stop abusing tenants’ rights in the first place.

The actions of Ithacan politicians do not appear to me as inconsistent with the process in which they achieved their positions, for it seems that gesturing toward making political change is enough if the people the change is for aren’t the people holding you accountable. Acting Mayor Lewis was not elected to the position of mayor but was appointed to the position by former Mayor Myrick. Alderman Mehler was not chosen by the 7,594 Ithacans of the Ward 4 district he represents, but by a committee of six people. I am by no means the first to say this, but please allow me to use my position to say that Ithaca needs politicians that will not only talk like champions of Democratic constituencies, but have the courage to follow through with it. 

Javed Jokhai is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and the incoming President of the Cornell Democrats. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.