Rent forgiveness program harms landlords

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The city of Ithaca is asking the state to allow it to change city code, giving the mayor the power to cancel rent for tenants, negating leases tenants have with landlords. The Common Council talked about payments to landlords to make up that rent, but there was no provision for any such payments.

This is an interference in a contract and makes me wonder what other contracts the city will now decide to interfere with. Will it now be attempting to void contracts between banks and car buyers?

Student loans weigh on many of our residents. Will the city now attempt to void those contracts between the schools, federal government and students? The Common Council said Cornell and students paying rent for dormitory rooms will also be covered if this change in city code comes to pass. I’m guessing that’s a different kind of contract, but again, one the city is asking for jurisdiction over.

This vote has already harmed the tenant/landlord relationship. The tenant group that pushed this resolution was leading tenants to believe their rent will be forgiven with no consequence even before the vote.

It’s forced me as a county legislator to see if there’s any power the county has to stop this attempted voiding of contracts. Some damage from this vote has already been done. Landlords can now claim, justifiably, they’ve been harmed by this vote if even one tenant points to this vote as a reason they won’t be paying rent.

The one thing I can do now is immediately call for a suspension of foreclosures by the county for non-payment of taxes in the city of Ithaca for 2020, and I plan to do so.

If the mayor is given this power, he is not taking money from a broad tax base to fulfill the obligations of the lease the tenant has with the landlord, as is done with a voucher program. He would be taking money from one group, landlords, their labor, and giving it to another group, tenants, deemed more worthy.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than what’s called in legal circles a takings. Yes, that’s illegal. This will be explained as just a question to the state government to see if it can be done. It is not. It’s been taken as a message to tenants that rent forgiveness is on the way and puts a wedge in the landlord/tenant relationship. It’s also wrong.

Right now, there’s a moratorium on evictions into August for those affected by COVID-19. Some landlords are working with tenants to get as much of the rent paid as possible. In some cases, this was a delay of payment without penalty as the unemployment system was backlogged.

Sometimes, there are multiple roommates and while one can pay, others in the apartment can’t. Until recently, it was hard to even show an apartment, and with the NY PAUSE still going, is it really a good time to look for a new tenant? Better to have half the rent than zero.

It was suggested at Common Council that members would be open to freezing rent extensions at the current rent. The answer to that is a simple question. Will the Common Council be freezing city taxes at the current rate? Again, does a landlord want to lose a good tenant while still under the PAUSE for a $50 hike in rent?

To be clear, this is not a rent forgiveness. This is the government taking from the family who bought a duplex, rents out the one side and lives in the other and gives their labor to someone else. The city should not interfere in contracts it’s not a party to.

That is for the two parties to work out; if they can’t, then the courts will step in, and it’s my experience Tompkins County courts are fair when it comes to tenants’ rights.

Thank you to Donna Fleming, George McGonigal, Cynthia Brock and Rob Gearhart for opposing this move to take property from a group of its citizens. I’m hopeful the governor will also see the problem this creates and will not grant this power to the mayor.

It’s true that banks allowed mortgage holders to delay payment on their mortgages. Some added the three months to the end of the contract, but for many, those payments kick in this month and must be paid by the end of the year, just as the taxes will have to be paid this year.

The costs have not gone away. I believe the Common Council has set itself up for a lawsuit if even one property owner is not paid on a contract because of this move. It’s unclear what the defense for this taking of property will be.

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