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In Ithaca's eviction court, tenants' rights advocates are keeping watch

Ithaca Eviction Court WEB

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—Around 10 people with the Ithaca Tenants Union showed up to watch the city eviction court in session on the first Thursday of December.

The room was capped at 18 people, including the judge and the bailiffs. Those who came with the tenants’ union and couldn’t fit in the room, stood outside the court with signs.

Angel Devivo was among those who were permitted to sit and watch the proceedings. Some members of the Ithaca Tenants Union began monitoring cases a few months ago.

“We’re all volunteers, we just do this because there’s a need. I was in housing precarity at the start of the pandemic, and I’m back in housing precarity now,” Devivo said. “It’s just so clear this is going to be a huge, huge issue.”

More eyes on the docket

The Ithaca Tenants Union, a tenants’ rights group, organizes around legal protections and aid for renters. Earlier this year, they campaigned in favor of “good cause eviction” legislation in the city of Ithaca, which is still under discussion on both the state and local levels.

Union members have been sitting in on weekly city eviction proceedings for several weeks to put pressure on landlords, as well as the court, to prevent or stall evictions.

All cases heard on Dec. 2 were either dismissed or adjourned until a later date, meaning no one was immediately evicted.

“The more eyes on eviction court, the better the outcome, which I think we can see today,” Devivo said once the court session ended.

Online, the tenants’ union has been urging residents to attend city eviction court and offers rides to both onlookers and tenants being evicted.

It’s not uncommon for tenants at risk of eviction to miss court when they are called. Some may not know they are eligible for protections via the eviction moratorium or how to navigate the court system, and may have already moved to another property upon receiving first notice of an eviction proceeding.

If a tenant does not attend their proceeding, the judge will most likely grant the landlord a default judgment, or rule in favor of the landlord.

“The people who didn’t show up today should’ve been tried for their nuisance cases. They always do that by default, and they’re not,” Devivo said. “You infer what the differences are this week than the past several months.”

Landlords say, in some cases, their hands are tied

Members of the tenants’ union were there, in part, to protest evictions brought by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS), an affordable housing non-profit that owns and manages rental properties across the Finger Lakes.

New York’s eviction moratorium still limits some evictions, but courts can rule on cases in which a tenant does present a financial hardship declaration, or is brought to court for lease violations and “nuisance” complaints.

“If the health and safety of some of our tenants are put in jeopardy because of one household, then that's something that we need to take care of, we are responsible for everyone,” said Johanna Anderson, INHS’s executive director.

Anderson said the non-profit sometimes has to evict tenants who violate terms of their lease based on stipulations from INHS funders on the local, state and federal levels. That includes a requirement to re-certifying a tenant’s income to ensure that they still meet income requirements set by the funder.

Exceeding the income limit or failing to provide the documentation needed to re-certify their income are lease violations that could lead to eviction, INHS said in a statement.

Anderson added that her organization must strictly follow those requirements, or they risk losing funding for affordable housing.

“Obviously, you never want that to happen, so we take these things very seriously,” she said.

INHS has suspended all non-payment evictions and late fees. But Devivo with the tenants’ union said they want to see INHS promise to discontinue evictions altogether.

“If they are this great housing [non-profit], you need to start running your rentals differently,” Devivo said.

Devivo hopes the moratorium is extended. Until then, the tenants union will continue to stand with renters in the city’s court.