ITHACA, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — City of Ithaca activists want rent forgiveness for anyone unable to pay during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday night, after a six to four Common Council vote, the city is calling on the New York State Department of Health to give permission for Ithaca to provide rent relief to its tenants after the negative economic impacts brought on by COVID-19.
“We wanted to send a strong message to the state and federal government that more needs to be done,” said Ducson Nguyen, Alderperson, City of Ithaca, 2nd Ward. “It makes sense to ask the highest levels of government to come up with a holistic response to this.”
Conversations of the need for rent relief and rent debt cancellation first started with the Ithaca Tenants Union, a union of Ithaca tenants who advocate for the renting community.
“Rent forgiveness means all of those people whose economic situations have been completely turned on their heads, who don’t know how they’re going to pay rent, aren’t punished for that economic crisis by being left to bear the brunt of financial impact and to be homeless because of it,” said Genevive Rand, one of the organizers of the Ithaca Tenants Union.
“It started with a community organizing project that involved thousands of calls to local legislators, volunteer hours, writing letters, #CancelRent petitions and demonstrations,” explained Rand.
The city said more than 75 percent of its population is made up of renters.
An executive order put in place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is extended until August 20, which allows tenants who can’t pay rent not to be evicted.
However, the City of Ithaca’s proposed legislation is a forgiveness of the three months — April, May and June — of unpaid rent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For a lot of people, they will owe three months of full rent so the logic behind computing it for April, May and June is that we know this balloon payment is coming up for a lot of people and you figure it’s a debt cancellation,” Nguyen explained.
As Nguyen describes, it’s a “longshot” that the proposed legislation will be approved, but if the state happens to agree, Ithaca will be the first in the country to receive rent debt forgiveness.
But not only is it a longshot, it’s a long process.
In Wednesday night’s vote, Ithaca Mayor, Svante Myrick explained the need for immediate relief at all levels. He suggested that the goal is to make sure one group, whether that’s the tenants or landlords, isn’t receiving the short end of the stick.
Even if granted these powers, would I cancel rent tomorrow? I wouldn’t. What I would do is put together a working group that would allow us to find real rent relief that could include rent cancellation, it likely would include rent cancellation, but it would only come in partnership with relief as well as for small landlords and for homeowners.
Now, so why not put together that working group and figure that program before the state’s permission? Because we have to figure out if the state will even let us do it first. We want to provide this relief. We need to provide this relief… Put some pressure. Let them know that we are worried here. We are more than worried here, we are fighting for our lives here and we have thousands of residents here who are freaked out, and that we’re sending that signal to the state that it’s not okay to sit on your hands and do nothing. It’s a message to Congress that it’s not okay to sit on your hands and do nothing either because we are reaching for solutions here locally.Mayor Svante Myrick, City of Ithaca
A discussion of concerns also took place throughout Wednesday night’s council meeting. Some potential consequences could impact small landlords and even city services.
“If tenants can’t pay and landlords can’t pay their bills, one of those bills is the property tax and if they can’t pay property tax, that affects everybody, including the most vulnerable that we’re talking about… that’s definitely a concern,” explained Nguyen.
But the city’s mission is to call on the state and federal government for action to help its most vulnerable.
“I think of this as a catalyst for activism statewide and countrywide,” Nguyen said.
The fight doesn’t stop here. Now it moves to the state level, now it moves to other cities, and our plan is to be on the ground as possible, as well as the rest of the people that are impacted by this situation.Genevive Rand, Organizer, Ithaca Tenants Union
It’s important to note that nothing has changed for tenants and landlords yet. If you’re able, you are still asked to pay your rent.
Some landlords in New York who have lost rental income can now apply for a loan to help cover a loss of revenue. Click here to learn more.