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New ‘good cause’ eviction renter protections on the table in Ithaca

People holding signs for advocating for Good Cause
Aurora Berry
Tenants' rights advocates and landlords packed an Ithaca Common Council hearing on "good cause" eviction.

There might be new renter protections headed for the city of Ithaca. The state Legislature passed “good cause” eviction protections for New York City and gave upstate communities the ability to opt in.

WSKG’s All Things Considered host Emillya Wilbert spoke with Ithaca and Tompkins County reporter Aurora Berry to learn more about how Ithaca is deciding whether or not to do just that.


WILBERT: So let's start with a basic definition. Tell me what are the proposed good-cause eviction protections.

BERRY: So the good-cause eviction law is meant to protect renters from non-renewal by their landlords. Sometimes it's also called the “right to renew” and what it does is it limits the reasons why a landlord can choose to not renew a tenant's lease.

Essentially, in most cases, if someone is following the terms of their lease and is paying their rent on time, their landlord will have to give them the option to renew. It also limits the amount that a landlord can increase the rent on their apartments. That's to try to prevent price hikes that are predatory and would push tenants out of their homes.

So increases to rent are capped at either 10% or the Consumer Price Index, which is basically inflation plus 5%, whichever is lower, so it's meant to keep up with increasing costs of operating a rental without using that as a way to push tenants out of an apartment to try to get tenants who would be willing to pay higher rents.

WILBERT: Would this impact all renters?

BERRY: So it actually wouldn't, and there are a lot of advocates who were very unhappy with this when it passed the state Legislature. And this doesn't have anything to do with the person who's renting the apartment. This is all determined by the conditions of your landlord's portfolio of properties, as well as the age of your building, and in some cases, the overall price of the rent that you're paying.

This is a state law that was only immediately applied to New York City. The rest of us in upstate communities have to decide at our local government level if we want to opt in, and there's also the option to make some modifications based on our community.

WILBERT: How would the law in Ithaca be different from New York City?

BERRY: So the version of the state law that's in effect in New York City has mandated carve outs for what it calls small landlords. In New York City, that means landlords with 10 units or fewer. Right now it's looking like the law would apply to any landlord with more than one unit, and that's something that's caused a lot of controversy with our local landlords.

WILBERT: It also doesn't impact all properties, right?

BERRY: No, it doesn't impact all properties. Something that I find really interesting about this is that student housing is going to be excluded from this. You know, these laws won't apply to dorm rooms.

There's also something a little complicated and interesting regarding the year that your apartment was built. So if your apartment was built after 2009 essentially, all of these apartments have 30 years from the time when they were built that they're going to be exempt from this law. And that has some folks who are smaller landlords really upset, because they feel like there, you know, are carve outs for newer, larger complexes that feel like this burden is being placed on them.

It also excludes properties that are priced way above the fair market value. So 345%.

WILBERT: I know some landlords have spoken out against this. What do they have to say?

BERRY: Well, they say the way things are set up right now that it would hurt landlords with fewer properties.

At a recent public hearing, we heard a lot of folks saying that it will be more expensive to go through the process of getting rid of problematic tenants if this passes. A lot of landlords said that they sometimes use non-renewal as an alternative to eviction if they have tenants that are problematic. So instead of going to court for an eviction, they would just simply not renew the lease.

I talked to Kayla Lane from the Tompkins County Landlords Association, and here's what she said.

KAYLA LANE: It’s going to affect the ones that, you know, took a small sum of money and invested in a four-unit property and have held onto it for 10, 20, maybe even 30 years, was hoping to maybe retire and continue to operate their property, and that's who it's going to affect.

WILBERT: All right, that's what landlords have to say. What do tenants have to say?

BERRY: A lot of the renters who have spoken on good cause say it would create a new level of stability in their lives. They say this will keep them in their homes if they follow the rules of their lease, and will allow them to really settle down. And some people also say it will prevent landlords from using non-renewal to discriminate against tenants based on identity.

Folks also say it will allow tenants to advocate for things like repairs without worrying if it will lead to their landlord deciding they're too much trouble and not allowing them to renew their lease. When I talked to Katie Sims of the Ithaca Tenants Union, they described it like this.

KATIE SIMS: Right now, if tenants really insist on repairs being made, or if they withhold rent for repairs not being made, which is tenants’ legal right to do, then they often get non-renewed.

BERRY: Plus the Ithaca Common Council has tried to pass good cause previously. A couple of years ago, they tried, but didn't get to because it became apparent that there would be some insurmountable legal challenges without some state legislation.

WILBERT: So that's Ithaca. My last question is, what about the rest of upstate New York?

BERRY: So if Ithaca passes this on Wednesday, it will be one of the first upstate communities to do so. Right now, there are only two other upstate communities that have good cause, that's Kingston and Albany.

You know, as for other upstate communities, the decision on whether or not to opt in really sits with the local government and, by extension, with the voters who elect that local government. All we can do right now is wait and see, just like we're going to wait and see how Ithaca Common Council votes on Wednesday on this issue.

WILBERT: That was our Ithaca and Tompkins County reporter, Aurora Berry. Thank you, Aurora.

BERRY: Thank you.