Rent and Racism protest

A combination protest asking for justice for George Floyd and a cancellation of rent rode around town on Saturday. 

The local movement pushing for rent cancellation during the coronavirus pandemic has picked up momentum going into its third month, marked publicly by a large protest held Saturday in downtown Ithaca and the introduction of ground-breaking rent forgiveness legislation before Common Council. 

While Saturday’s event initially began as a protest for rent cancellation, in light of the nationwide protests against racist police violence it soon became a combined event according to organizers. That led to the protest swelling to over 100 cars parading downtown. The event was organized by the Ithaca Tenants Union, which has been leading the rent relief effort, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. 

“[Saturday’s] car protest saw hundreds of people show up for not only tenants rights, but to support anti-racism and black lives,” the statement said. “We joined together today in solidarity to affirm that social and economic justice are intrinsically linked, and we must fight all forms of structural oppression and violence united as one.”

Perhaps the movement’s most significant step, though, came in the form of an agenda addition for the June 3 Common Council meeting: a resolution asking the Department of Health to allow Mayor Svante Myrick to forgive three months of rent among city renters who have been unable to pay. It is being brought forth by Alderperson Ducson Nguyen of the Second Ward. (Read the full resolution here)

“Common Council requests 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, and, for leases started on or after April 1 2020, to forgive all rent payments and additional fees due through June 2020,” the resolution reads. It also includes language about maintaining rent prices during the crisis and asks that the Department of Health approve Myrick to forbid the eviction of residential renters and small-business tenants through the rest of June. 

The goal of the bill, which would be historic if approved by Common Council and allowed by the Department of Health, is to provide relief for those unable to pay their rents in the months since the outbreak tanked the economy and are likely facing eviction when the state-ordered 90 day moratorium expires later this month, according to ITU’s Genevieve Rand, one of the engines behind the effort. Rent that has already been paid to landlords would not be revoked and redistributed to tenants, but rent debt amassed during those months by tenants would effectively be erased. It also calls upon those who are able to pay their monthly rent to continue paying in good faith. A petition supporting the passage of the legislation has gathered over 1,500 signatures. 

“Our recommendation is that [the mayor] begin with April, May and June,” Rand said of ITU’s intentions. “We believe that since many have already paid for each, starting with those three will save those with rent debt from eviction on June 20th while having the lowest impact on small landlords. If the state has still failed to provide its own comprehensive rent relief next month, we will explore extending the measure.”

There’s still a long way to go: the bill is sure to face objections from area landlords, and might not even make it out of Common Council. Beyond that, whether the state is amenable to allowing such an action isn’t yet known; the legislation would be unprecedented at the city level and the Ithaca Times couldn’t find another municipality that has approved or even formally discussed such a measure. 

One of the landlords sure to be a voice of opposition is Tim Terpening of Lake Street Apartments, whose arguments against the movement among local landlord list-servs stretch into the hundreds of words. He paints the movement as the big agenda of socialism—a term he uses villifyingly, although the Ithaca Tenants Union would likely have a different opinion of it—and pushes for the Landlords Association of Tompkins County to draft an official position denouncing socialism. 

For his part in lessening the burden on tenants, Terpening said he guaranteed tenants who were unable to sublet that they would not have to pay more than 50 percent of their rent for June and July, and he’d discuss with them some sort of other rent adjustment if they lost their jobs. He said the policy would likely net him a loss of thousands of dollars. But a rent forgiveness move, he said, would solely serve as a pandering political move by the City of Ithaca government and a sign they are “being cowed by socialist bullies.”

“If the government wants to truly help those renters and home-owners who’ve lost their jobs and income due to coronavirus, they should set up a program that assists them with direct cash payments,” Terpening said. “Any other way is to worsen the crisis.”

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