Genevieve Rand was working at a cafe in Ithaca when the coronavirus began to spread in New York, and the state began shutting down public-facing businesses. She lost her job in March, and applied for unemployment benefits right away. It wasn’t until early May that she got any response at all, she says, and even then, it was just a notice that she was eligible to file. She’s been trying to do so every day since. But like thousands of others, she has found the website dysfunctional or overwhelmed. Meanwhile, her bank account is dwindling. She says her landlords, who know she’s a tenant organizer, have told her she has to be out of her apartment in July, claiming that she refused a lease renewal, even though she says they never had a conversation about renewing the lease. She can hardly pay rent, and has no idea where she’d find two months’ rent and a security deposit for a new place. New York’s eviction moratorium begins to expire on June 20.
Early in the pandemic, Rand posted a petition on Change.org demanding that rents be frozen in Ithaca. The petition got almost 5,000 signatures. Over the past few months, the Ithaca Tenants Union has developed the demand into a #CancelRent campaign that’s part of a statewide campaign managed by Housing Justice for All. Earlier this month, under sustained pressure from the Ithaca Tenants Union and hundreds of renters, Ithaca became the first city in the United States to vote in favor of “canceling rent.” The strategy — a resolution requesting additional executive power for the mayor — isn’t certain to pay off. But organizers and supporters are hoping that if nothing else, it inspires other cities to show their support for rent relief, and builds pressure on the state to act.
“Our strategy is to do organizing of the people who this decision affects first, because that’s really the majority in a lot of places, and focus on convincing legislators second,” Rand says. “Ultimately, this should be up to the people who are affected by it. Our systems of government, it’s been very clear during this crisis, have been insufficiently set up to handle it fully.”
On June 3, as the Ithaca Journal and other outlets reported, the Ithaca Common Council approved a resolution requesting “that the New York State Department of Health authorize the Mayor to forgive via executive order three months of all residential and small-business rent payments and additional fees which are due through June 2020.” (An earlier statewide executive order gave the Department of Health the power to approve all local COVID-19 executive orders.)
So in Ithaca, the principle of the #CancelRent effort is that the mayor, with the permission of the state Department of Health, would issue an executive order to erase all rent debt for residents and small businesses that accrued between April and June as part of the city’s emergency public-health response to COVID-19. Housing is, of course, a vital part of the public-health response to a pandemic. The primary advice public-health officials have given people is to stay home to avoid being exposed to the virus, and to stay home once infected to avoid spreading it to others. Health officials and housing advocates are both worried that restarting evictions could put even more people at risk of exposure needlessly.
While city council members briefly entertained a rent cancellation measure in San Jose, cities have so far been unable to act on their own, concerned about certain legal challenges from property owners. Ithaca’s approach is novel, and a bold step, says Rebecca Garrard, the campaigns manager for housing justice at Citizen Action of New York.
“What you typically find is that no municipality wants to go first on anything,” says Garrard, who is helping to manage the Housing Justice for All campaign and worked with the Ithaca Tenants Union on the resolution. “Once one municipality goes, it’s just enormously easier to get more municipalities to act … This was really an ingenious and yet very valid means by which to gain this power.”
Supporters of the resolution aren’t confident that the Department of Health will approve the executive order. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick did not respond to a request for an interview. And a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health said the Department had “not received an executive order for review from the City of Ithaca on this matter” as of late last week. Garrard says that advocates believe executive power has to be invoked in order for any rent-cancellation measure to survive legal challenges. But she isn’t guessing what the Department of Health will do.
“The Department of Health operates as an extension of Governor Cuomo,” Garrard says. “I do not anticipate Governor Cuomo being supportive of this measure. So for me, what’s vitally important is for a state agency like the Dept of Health to operate within the intent of their purpose, and with the autonomy that they should have, to focus on health and public safety and not political consequences.”
Ithaca Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who sponsored the resolution, says it was only possible because of intense pressure from the Ithaca Tenants Union and its supporters. The group had initially asked for a change to the city code, Nguyen says, but members of the Common Council told them that it was almost certain to fail. Even the resolution requesting executive authority nearly failed, eventually passing by a vote of 6-4. Nguyen says he’s not holding out hope that the Department of Health will approve the request.
“We were honest that it was a longshot, but it was a catalyst for other activism,” Nguyen says. “And [hopefully] it gets the state’s attention. Even if they turn us down, it is a clear sign that there’s a crisis.”
In the event that the state does approve the request, Nguyen says, the mayor still won’t act unilaterally, but instead create a task force that would sort through the most effective ways to cancel rent debt for tenants while protecting small landlords from foreclosure in the process.
Meanwhile, members of the Ithaca Tenants Union, many of whom have spent countless hours organizing together despite never having met in person, say they’re hopeful the Department of Health will actually approve the request. They’re hopeful that the state will act to protect the thousands of tenants who live in Ithaca and are struggling to make ends meet. And they’re proud that they got Ithaca to act first.
“It’s not a testament to how progressive the city is that this could succeed,” says Elliana Pfeffer, an organizer with the tenants union. “It’s a testament to organizing, and to showing how popular it is.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our twice-weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.