On June 3, the main tenants’ advocacy group in the small city of Ithaca, New York secured a key legislative victory in their fight to cancel rent payments due during the pandemic. The Ithaca Tenants’ Union submitted a resolution to the Ithaca city council which would have the city request that the New York State Department of Health grant the city the power to forgive all outstanding rent payments accumulated since March. The proposal passed six to four, and the next day the city sent an official letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Health asking for the authority to forgive rent and urging the pursuit of mortgage payment cancellations on the state level. This development makes Ithaca the first city in the country to formally request the power to cancel rents due during the coronavirus pandemic.
Culmination of months of organizing
This victory was the well earned result of a months long campaign by Ithaca tenants for rent cancellation, which began the moment COVID-19 reached the city. A first push for rent cancellation in March saw organizers coordinate phone zaps on three consecutive days to ensure the city council was well aware that rent cancellation was a popular demand among their constituents. After the campaign was folded under the steadily growing ITU, residents kept up pressure by consistently making phone calls, sending letters and writing emails to city legislators.
The May 30 car caravan organized jointly by the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Ithaca Tenants’ Union marked a turning point in the rent cancellation campaign. Unifying the demands for a cancellation of rent payments and an end to racist policing, the action mobilized a great number of people from all backgrounds. The demonstration began in a downtown parking lot, where organizers spoke to the immense financial hardship many Ithaca residents have been facing due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that this hardship is due to capitalism’s prioritizing of profits over people. The caravan, consisting of 115 cars and seven bicycles embarked on a long, clockwise route through most of Ithaca.
As the caravan wound through the city, countless Ithacans expressed solidarity with the demonstrators from the sidewalks, clapping and raising their fists. A number of residents who found themselves on the road alongside the caravan chose to join the demonstration spontaneously. The caravan also passed by a number of properties owned by the slumlord Norfe Pirro — notorious in Ithaca for his racist beliefs, his infested properties and his tendency to evict people for the slightest transgressions — in a show of support for his tenants.
The car caravan sent a strong message to Ithaca city legislators, who were shown that residents overwhelmingly support rent cancellation. The action itself was referenced several times by councilmembers in conversation with ITU organizers prior to Wednesday’s vote, and ultimately proved decisive in ensuring the resolution was passed by the city council.
Continuing the fight to #CancelTheRents
This victory marks but the first step in the ITU’s fight for rent cancellation. The group is hopeful that the New York Department of Health will approve the city’s request, due to the importance of avoiding the health risks associated with the increase in homelessness that will occur without rent relief, though it is by no means guaranteed. Compelling the city government to make use of its authority to cancel rents if granted will also require more work, as Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick has stated he is personally not certain whether he would support cancellation of all back payments on rent if he gained the authority to do so.
Ithaca organizers are nonetheless optimistic about the future prospects of their rent cancellation campaign. “It was entirely the people and not the politicians that made this possible,” commented ITU and PSL member Daisy Wiley. “During the vote, a group of protestors even showed up outside the mayor’s house in favor of cancelling rent.”
“This bill proves what a small, dedicated group of people can do, but imagine this tenfold. A glimpse of an alternative future is available to more of us now — a future where no human can hoard the right to a home over another’s head. The vast difference between those who own and those who sell their labor is made apparent. This is the crack in the sleek veneer of capitalist ideology that our bill has opened. The people have caught a glimpse of what is possible, and the crack cannot be closed back up.”