The City of Ithaca will ask the New York State Department of Health for permission to forgive three months of rent debt via executive order by Mayor Svante Myrick.
The move was approved by 6-4 vote at Common Council on Wednesday night. The burden now lies with New York State to either grant permission or deny the city's attempt. Ithaca would be the first municipality in the country to grant rent debt forgiveness in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, which has tripled unemployment in the Ithaca area and made it difficult or impossible for many people to pay rent.
Crucially: the resolution would apply to people who have amassed rent debt during the pandemic and would not take any money already paid to landlords away from them, nor would it exempt people from future rent payments. As it currently stands, it would apply for rent payments missed for the months of April, May and June.
Myrick expressed support for the resolution, crafted in collaboration with the Ithaca Tenants Union, during the meeting. Alderperson Ducson Nguyen admitted that the initiative is a "longshot" to get approved by the state, but that it could form solid groundwork for more action in the future.
"For me, it's a catalyst for further activism down the road," Nguyen said. "It leaves the priority of this crisis to people or entities who have greater resources to solve the issue."
Both alderpersons Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal expressed sympathy for people who have had their ability to pay rent impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, but didn't agree with the resolution's specific intentions.
"I appreciate the heart behind this and I am strongly in favor of ways to assist renters to pay their rent," McGonigal said. "I can't support a rent freeze or forgiveness, whatever you want to call it. In addition to landlords being put in a jam, you're talking about putting painters out of work, carpenters out of work, [...] you would increase the amount of unemployment in this community and the number of people who would not be able to pay their rent. I really think this is the wrong way to go about it, but maybe I don't understand the sophistication of what you're trying to do."
Before approving, council did agree to remove a letter attached to the resolution that would have been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo. They also amended one of the resolution's clauses to specify that the legislation would be used to help those who have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, though that will likely need more clarity as the bill proceeds.
The Ithaca Tenants Union said it had not been in touch with the state on the topic. Landlords have not been in favor of the plan, though no formal statement has been released from the Landlords Association of Tompkins County.