“Cancel rent” campaign notches first victory, in Ithaca

Measure to forgive three months’ rent needs approval by the state’s Department of Health

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick (Twitter, iStock)
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick (Twitter, iStock)

Ithaca’s Common Council isn’t waiting for the state legislature to cancel rent for the town’s 7,500 renters — it is demanding that right from the Cuomo administration.

The measure, which passed by a 6-4 vote, was supported by the mayor, Svante Myrick, and tenant groups including Housing Justice for All. It calls for the municipality to seek permission from the state to cancel three months’ rent — with no means-testing required — and stop residential and some commercial evictions.

“We, the City of Ithaca, write to formally request the State Department of Health’s review of our city’s attached resolution to forgive the rent obligations of our residents,” the letter reads. “In light of these acute pains and the absence of comprehensive state or federal action, we declare our intent to use our own legislation to protect renters.”

If approved by the Department of Health, Ithaca would take a series of actions that read like a laundry list of landlord nightmares. The mayor would forgive three months’ rent for any resident, prohibit eviction of residential or small-business tenants, and “obligate” landlords to offer lease extensions at the current rent level.

The resolution does, however, call upon renters who are “financially stable” to continue paying rent, and urges a national rent and mortgage forgiveness fund for landlords.

The state’s Department of Health did not return a request for comment.

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Tenants’ success in Ithaca — a liberal college town — comes as the campaign to cancel rent faces an uphill battle in areas of New York that are less progressive.

Last week, state legislators threw their support behind a bill to provide subsidize landlords whose tenants meet certain requirements, but some tenant groups criticized it as financially insufficient and unhelpful to tenants who cannot document income loss. The bill advanced in the state legislature last week — as the Assembly speaker steered it around opposition from the Assembly’s housing committee — but has not been signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Ithaca measure more closely resembles legislation envisioned by tenant groups around the country who have called for rent to be canceled during the Covid-19 pandemic, as unemployment rates near Depression-era levels.

Ithaca is the first municipality to pass a measure to cancel rent on the premise that not doing so would endanger the health of its residents — skirting the need for legislative approval, or specific approval from Cuomo, who has not supported canceling rent.

Cuomo could intercede, however, to prevent the municipality from canceling rent. Earlier this week, the governor — who has been granted emergency powers to battle the pandemic — reminded New Yorkers that he can supersede virtually any elected official in New York, even Mayor Bill de Blasio, when he announced a New York City curfew on an upstate radio show.