City moves forward with rent cancellation proposal
Ithaca, New York, would be the first city in the U.S. to institute a rent forgiveness program for residents impacted by COVID-19
The mayor of Ithaca, New York, has now taken steps to move forward with a rent cancellation proposal approved by the Common Council last month.
In an executive order, which has been sent to the state for approval, Mayor Svante Myrick formally asked for permission to cancel three months of rent for Ithacans who are in "severe jeopardy of homelessness" due to the COVID-19 crisis.
While the state of New York temporarily banned evictions back in March at the height of the region's crisis, that moratorium has already ended for residential tenants, though the state is allowing loss of income due to the pandemic as a defense in legal proceedings brought by landlords.
None of these remaining protections, however, address how tenants will be able to pay for outstanding rent due once all legal protections are lifted.
“It’s sort of rescheduling the problem rather than solving it,” said Ithaca Tenants Union organizer Genevieve Rand. “There’s still the reality of the fact there’s not enough money going into the pockets of a lot of poor people. And rescheduling the time where they’ll be punished for that with eviction isn’t the same as actually keeping us safe."
That's why the City of Ithaca, where nearly 70% of all residents are renters, is attempting to take a different approach.
The executive order, which can be reviewed below, requests permission to declare a local state of emergency, which would then clear the way for the creation of a Rent Forgiveness Commission. "The Commission shall be comprised of five members appointed by the Mayor, including a Chair selected by the Mayor, and will include three City renters and two City landlords," the executive order reads.
Once implemented, the Commission would then be tasked with creating "systems and rules for the forgiveness of rent and the extension of leases for those tenants in the City of Ithaca otherwise in severe jeopardy of homelessness as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic."
This doesn't necessarily mean that landlords get left in the lurch, however. "The Commission shall account for all available sources of rental assistance" when determining "severe jeopardy of homelessness," the order continues, which includes a rent assistance program recently adopted by the city.
During the June Common Council meeting, Ithaca councilmembers voted to allocate $190,000 in Community Development and Block Grant Program funds to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to provide some immediate relief to the most impacted families.
But advocates of rent cancellation see this as woefully inadequate.
“The funding that they had gotten from the state for that is entirely insufficient. It’s only able to serve about 49 renters,” said Sam Kwan of the Ithaca Tenants Union.
The executive order also asks the Rent Forgiveness Commission to make "recommendations to City government for funding allocations that could reduce or eliminate the need for rent forgiveness," though without passage of New York State Senate Bill S8190 — which would require the state to use federally allocated funds to provide vouchers to landlords for lost revenue — the city's hands are largely tied.
The problem at the local level is that we don’t have much money. We have limited ability to borrow, unlike the federal or state government,” said Ducson Nguyen, alderperson of the city's second ward and proponent of the initiative. “I say this as a homeowner and a landlord myself, that being able to own something is a huge privilege. . . . It’s incumbent on us to find a solution that works for the people who have less flexibility in that regard. Landlords will say that it’s not fair to take from me to give to someone else. And that’s why we’re attempting to ask the state to find a solution that lessens the impact on particularly smaller landlords."
The mayor has voiced a similar concern for such landlords.
“Even if granted these powers, would I cancel rent tomorrow? I wouldn’t,” Myrick told The Ithaca Voice shortly after the initial resolution passed. “What I would do is put together a working group that would allow us to find real rent relief that likely would include rent cancellation but it would only come in partnership with relief for small landlords and homeowners.”
Now that Myrick has taken steps to do just that, it's up to the state to make the next move.
While Nguyen is skeptical that the state health department will ultimately approve the request, he remains hopeful that the effort will pressure state legislators to take more meaningful action to protect both renters and homeowners.
“I’m hoping that even if the Department of Health doesn’t allow this, the New York state Senate and the state Assembly see this incredible need [and] that this crisis is looming.”
Read the proposed executive order: