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Ithaca, New York, is the first U.S. city to say it will cancel rent during the pandemic

Postponing rent is one thing, but how are people with no jobs supposed to pay later? This city wants to eliminate the debt of renters.

Ithaca, New York, is the first U.S. city to say it will cancel rent during the pandemic
[Photo: peterspiro/iStock]
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In Ithaca, New York, where nearly three-quarters of residents are renters, and COVID-19 has forced many out of work, a new resolution gives the mayor the power to cancel rent debt from the last three months, both for tenants and small businesses. The resolution—which also freezes rents and requires landlords to offer tenants lease extensions—requires approval from the state government, but housing activists believe that will happen. The city is the first in the country to act on nationwide calls to cancel rent because of the pandemic.

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New York, like several other states, temporarily banned evictions because of the crisis. But that ban didn’t address the fact that renters who lost jobs when the economy shut down are unlikely to be able to cover outstanding rent when the eviction ban ends. “It’s sort of rescheduling the problem rather than solving it,” says Genevieve Rand, an organizer for Ithaca Tenants Union, a group that formed just before the pandemic. “There’s still the reality of the fact there’s not enough money going into the pockets of a lot of poor people. And rescheduling the time where they’ll be punished for that with eviction isn’t the same as actually keeping us safe.”

The state’s first eviction ban will expire next week, on June 20. While the governor extended the ban, the new extension grants less protection. Instead of a blanket ban, you can now be served with eviction papers and taken to housing court. At the hearing, if tenants can prove economic hardship because of the crisis, they can avoid eviction. But they’ll still have the looming problem of covering rent. And if poor or undocumented tenants don’t show up at court, they’ll automatically lose.

Homeowners, on the other hand, have gotten more protection from the state, in the form of long-term deferments of mortgage payments, short-term deferments of property taxes, and vouchers for landlords. The legislature had been working on a statewide rent cancellation bill, but it was recently dropped.

The new resolution in Ithaca calls for more funding from the state to cover rent so landlords won’t lose money, though Rand emphasizes that tenants are in a more precarious position.

Rand, herself a tenant, had just opened a café with friends when the pandemic hit, and she had to immediately file for unemployment. But the state’s unemployment filing system didn’t work. “Over the course of the month of March and April, I probably applied on three different New York unemployment sites,” she says. “They kept making new sites instead of fixing the existing ones. I didn’t hear back from them until early May.” In May, she was told that she was approved to make a claim, but she has yet to get through the claims process, despite trying daily. She also hasn’t received a stimulus check. “I talked to tenants every day who are in similar situations,” she says. The city relies heavily on service jobs for the local student population and tourists, and while some businesses are reopening, others haven’t yet. Some have permanently closed.

The city’s new resolution wouldn’t typically need state approval, but the governor signed an executive order during the pandemic requiring local orders to get approval from the state’s health department. The intent was to prevent cities from circumventing the state’s lockdown orders, but the rent cancellation resolution will have to go through the same process. The tenant’s union is pushing to try to get approval before the first eviction moratorium ends next week. Rand is hopeful that the Department of Health will give its approval. “Preventing homelessness is in the interest of public health,” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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