[Updated July 10]
Calls to cancel rent have grown louder in cities across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic has slashed employment numbers and hindered millions of people from being able to afford their housing. Activists across the nation, in cities like New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and beyond, have possibly organized the largest number of autonomous rent strikes in U.S. history. Since March, according to We Strike Together, there have been 640,225 recorded rent or mortgage strikes in the nation. On the national stage, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota introduced a bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the entire duration of the crisis. Despite widespread calls for action, legislatures at the local, state, and national levels have yet to pass a measure that would offer large-scale rent forgiveness.
But one city is getting close. In Ithaca, New York, city officials recently passed a resolution asking the state to grant the mayor authority to cancel rent for all residents and small businesses for three months, making it the first city in the country to do so.
Ithaca, like thousands of other communities in the U.S., has been hit hard by the outbreak. According to preliminary statistics from the New York Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in the Ithaca metropolitan region currently stands at 7.8 percent, more than double that of May 2019, when it was 3.3 percent.
“Our economy is incredibly seasonal because of colleges and tourism,” says Sam Kwan, an organizer with the Ithaca Tenants Union. The city is home to three large schools: Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. Students from Cornell University alone contribute $221 million to the Tompkins county economy each year, and the school closures have left once-busy streets empty. Additionally, Kwan says that uncertainty regarding summer tourism has left many workers unsure if they will have an income in the coming months. In 2016, tourism contributed more than $197.8 million to the Tompkins County economy. “With the travel restrictions in place, things are going to be pretty rough here through the fall. We depend upon those months of tourism that are going to be really reduced.” The local tourism industry has already felt the impacts. Ithaca has lost 2,000 jobs in leisure and recreation since the outbreak began, representing a 55.8 percent decrease in jobs in that sector since this time last year. Kwan points to this as one of the chief reasons that so many residents are demanding rent forgiveness.
Elijah Fox, a fellow organizer at the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU), said the effort to advocate for some sort of rent relief for residents began days after the beginning of lockdown in March. “ITU organized a ‘phone zap’ [where] we were calling the phones of council members continually for days demanding rent relief, which ultimately got [us] in the room to start the conversations. The work on the bill itself began about a month and a half after that at the invitation of the mayor.”
However, the executive powers available to the mayor currently do not include the ability to cancel rent. For that to change, Ithaca’s Common Common must amend the city code to allow the mayor to cancel rent. But there’s another problem—an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo states that “no locality or political subdivision shall issue any local emergency order or executive order with respect to response of COVID-19 without the approval of the State Department of Health.” The order had been implemented to prevent localities from circumventing New York’s quarantine orders. City attorney Ari Lavine clarified how this impacts Ithaca at the Common Council’s June 3 meeting.
“Even if council had given the mayor authority to issue an order like this right now, the governor has prohibited such an order. And so, what this resolution asks the state to do is to say, ‘actually here’s an exception where the City of Ithaca would be allowed to pursue emergency orders on the local levels that are related to COVID.’ And then you have to go look at our code and charter and ask ourselves what is the mayor allowed to do? And the answer is you have to amend the code in order to allow the mayor to do this.”
And so on June 3, Ithaca’s Common Council passed a resolution requesting that the New York State Department of Health grant the mayor authority to issue an executive order, subject to Common Council approval, that forgives rent for all residents and small businesses for three months, as well as obligate landlords to offer lease extensions at the current rate of rent to renters affected by COVID-19. The resolution also calls on the New York State Senate to pass Senate Bill S8190, which would provide financial assistance for small landlords and homeowners.
Over a month after the council passed the resolution, it’s still uncertain whether rent cancellation will become a reality for Ithaca renters, who make up nearly 70 percent of the city’s residents. On June 17, the Ithaca city clerk sent a letter from Common Council as well as a certified copy of the resolution to New York State Department of Health, as well as Commissioner Howard Zucker, Gov. Cuomo, NYS Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and NYS Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. However, as of July 6, the New York Department of Health said it had not received an executive order review from the city. Four days later, on July 10, the New York State Department of Health told Shelterforce it was in receipt of a draft executive order from the City of Ithaca and in the process of reviewing it.
Ducson Nguyen, alderperson for Ithaca’s Second Ward, expressed skepticism that the state health department would approve the request, but maintained that the effort would pressure state legislators to enact more meaningful and effective action. “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.”
The fight for rent forgiveness in Ithaca has not been easy. Kwan notes that while the Ithaca Tenants Union talked through the resolution with Mayor Svante L. Myrick, Alderperson Stephen Smith, and Nguyen, some Common Council members were not overly receptive to the idea of rent cancellation, which was apparent in the tight 6-4 passage of the resolution. Alderperson George McGonigal was one of the opposing votes. “I don’t think it’s legal to penalize one group of people in order to financially assist another group. If we did it for three months, that’s 25 percent of landlords’ income for the year,” McGonigal says. Much of the concern lies with the city’s finances. McGonigal criticized the lack of clarity in the resolution and expressed concerns that rent cancellation would lead landlords to cut jobs of workers employed at rental properties such as cleaners, landscapers, and maintenance workers. Additionally, a few landlords have said if rent is cancelled, they will go to the county assessor’s office to argue that their property should be worth less because they generate less income from it, which would decrease the tax revenues paid to the city. “We’ve already taken a huge hit from COVID because all the stores are closed and sales tax revenues are way down. It’s costing the city millions of dollars,” McGonigal says.
Nguyen, who introduced the resolution, agrees with McGonigal’s concerns regarding the city budget, but cites it as a reason to support rent cancellation. “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,” Nguyen says. “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.”
Kwan of the Ithaca Tenants Union expressed frustration about how little assistance renters have received compared to landlords. “We’ve already seen legislation at the state level assist landlords, homeowners, and small-business owners from the financial impact of this pandemic. Meanwhile, we saw a piece of legislature that was supposed to go before the state assembly to protect renters and it didn’t even get a vote. We’re still happy for additional help for the landlords, we’re not saying that they should have their income wiped away and still be indebted to the banks and still have all the property taxes and mortgages to pay, because we understand they have a lot of costs associated with owning property. But the state has passed and will continue to pass legislation for them and we have yet to see any protections for renters, who are more vulnerable and more at risk of homelessness.”
New York state and Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located, have passed a number of measures aimed at providing relief to households suffering financial losses due to COVID-19. Cuomo issued a statewide eviction ban through June 20 and then extended it to Aug. 20, but with additional restrictions that require those seeking evictions protections provide documentation that they have suffered financial losses as a direct result of COVID-19. 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 rental assistance to 49 households who make 80 percent or less than the area’s median income. This would amount to a total of approximately $3,700 for each of the 49 households to sustain them for 3 months, and would be given to households on a first-come, first-served basis. Opponents of rent cancellation, like McGonigal, say these actions show that the government is taking concerns seriously, while also pointing to non-state actors and organizations as a source of additional relief. “Catholic Charities and church organizations help people in need all the time. A number of landlords have worked out deals with their tenants where they reduce their rent or use their security deposits for a months’ rents,” McGonigal said.
However, activists say such solutions are insufficient in addressing the widespread need of New Yorkers. Referring to the rental assistance resolution passed in the same June 3 meeting, Kwan expressed frustration and skepticism that it would be effective in addressing widespread housing insecurity. “The funding that they had gotten from the state for that is entirely insufficient. It’s only able to serve about 49 renters,” says Kwan, adding that government assistance programs also exclude undocumented people and a number of other folks as well.
Kwan is talking about means-testing, which is a determination of whether a household is eligible for government assistance based on whether the family is perceived to have the means of providing for themselves. McGonigal and other opponents of rent cancellation point to this as one of the key reasons why they do not support it, while its supporters point to it as a key reason why blanket rent cancellation is needed. Under stringent means-testing, undocumented community members, people working under the table, and others who lack various papers and identification would be excluded from any type of assistance. Opponents argue that means testing is necessary to ensure that only those who truly need assistance get it.
Inclusion and intersectionality were major themes expressed by Kwan, who says the Ithaca Tenants’ Union took lessons from other organizations such as Housing Justice for All and the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the latter of which provides multilingual resources and presentations to its community members. Kwan notes that Ithaca has two large subgroups of renters—student and local renters—and had to be diligent in understanding and addressing the concerns that the two groups faced in order to build a powerful base of support. Spurred to action, the group did much of the work on its own, including drafting the resolution with only limited discussions with Myrick, Nguyen, and Smith.
“What we kept affirming is that it’s not just strangers on the streets, but people that the councilmembers recognize. Our servers, baristas, bartenders, faces we know, will be on the street. I think that was the most effective argument, focusing on the human aspect.”
The city has a long ways to go before residents can expect rent forgiveness. Still, the Ithaca Tenants’ Union is celebrating this victory and preparing for the future. If the request is rejected by the Department of Health, Kwan said that the Ithaca Tenants’ Union will continue to build up its legal resources for tenants, educate them on their rights, and pivot to provide support for those going to eviction court.
Kwan says that should the state health department approve Ithaca’s request to use an executive order to forgive rent, “Our next move is to continue to pressure the mayor to implement this in a way that ensures those affected most by this will have access to it, and continuing to pressure [the council] to distribute the burden more across socioeconomic status as opposed to having the burden fall on the lowest rung of the ladder.”
When asked what advice the union would offer activists in other cities, Kwan says:
“Just because it seems unlikely that it’ll get passed . . . doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The reality of the situation is that . . . asking people to pay money that they were not able to work for and have no means of recovering is not fair. The work demands to be done, so just do it. . . . We’re all more capable than we and society gives us credit for.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include new information—as of July 10, the New York State Department of Health says it was in receipt of a draft executive order from the City of Ithaca and in the process of reviewing it.