Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick has officially asked the New York State Department of Health for permission to cancel three months of rent for Ithacans who are in "severe jeopardy of homelessness" as a result of the COVID-19 economic crisis, starting with the establishment of a dedicated city commission. Common Council had approved Myrick to ask the state for permission at their June meeting.
The state must now approve the executive order Myrick sent them in order for him to proceed. Myrick would also be declaring a local state of emergency, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak's economic ramifications on the city, local businesses and its residents. Ithaca would be the first city in the country to initiate a rent forgiveness program. There is no timetable for the state to respond.
See the full state of emergency declaration and the rent forgiveness executive order at the bottom of this page.
The exact language of the proposed executive order would establish the Rent Forgiveness Commission for the City of Ithaca, which would be made up of five Myrick-appointed people, including three renters from the City of Ithaca and two landlords from the City of Ithaca. That commission would then work to "institute 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." At the June meeting of Common Council, the proposed legislation would grant rent forgiveness for April, May and June for those people who have accumulated rent debt during those three months, though the final goal could shift from that.
The definition of "severe jeopardy of homelessness" will also be determined by the commission, and what language they eventually choose to include under the phrase will impact how expansive the legislation actually is, and how many renters in the City of Ithaca it would affect. Myrick said the commission would make the decision, but that preliminarily he would like to see it apply to "people who have lost their income, who aren't independently wealthy, and who are behind on rent for three months or more." The commission will also advise the city government on funding allocations that could reduce or eliminate the need for a rent forgiveness program.
While the fact that the bill has been officially sent is a landmark victory for the Ithaca Tenants Union, which has fervently pushed the bill and protested outside of Myrick's house and City Hall on Monday, they were unhappy with the inclusion of the "severe jeopardy of homelessness" phrase, saying it would exclude people. They had pushed for the bill to apply to all people affected by COVID-19, but Myrick said he felt that was too broad and far-reaching to include.
"This [executive order] leaves us both joyful and frustrated," said the Tenants Union in a statement to the Ithaca Times. "Its delivery to the State Health Department is an exciting development in Ithaca becoming the first US city to cancel rent, but it’s unacceptable to our Union that a 'severe jeopardy of homelessness' qualifier was added against the advice of the tenants this legislation affects."
The ITU said they felt the "severe jeopardy" language equated to means testing and thus left certain vulnerable populations out of the scope of the bill, and also allowed for too much administrative overhead.
"This EO is not an unequivocal mandate for stringent means testing in Ithaca’s rent cancellation, but its language does remind us that when working with establishment power structures, constant vigilance is key," the statement continued.