Ithaca Mirrors Nation’s Eviction Debate, But Coalition Wants To Change That

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TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) – Even with state and federal moratoria in place, the fear of eviction still exists.  A coalition in Ithaca, powered by a $1 million grant, is trying to address the problems faced by tenants vulnerable to eviction.

Liddy Bargar, a housing expert at the Tompkins County Human Services Coalition, said evictions are a racial equity issue.

“We know that based on the local data that we got that Black, female head of household is the highest, the most likely to be evicted in the City of Ithaca,” she said.

Ithaca Tenants Union protests outside a landlord’s office in downtown Ithaca. (Celia Clarke/WSKG)

According to numbers uncovered by a researcher who examined local court records,  renters who are Black and female are disproportionately taken to court. Meanwhile, Black women constitute less than 5 percent of the population in Ithaca.

The racial and gender disparity is not unique to Ithaca. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab compiles statistics from eviction courts across the country. Spokeswoman Alieza Durana said  nationally, Black women who end up in eviction court are most often single mothers.

“People of color, particularly Black moms are disproportionately at risk of eviction,” she said. “And this is partially due to the legacy of racism in U.S. society and partially due to the stagnant wages and rising rents that have been felt across the United States including in rural and suburban areas. This is not just a big city problem.”

Durana said the weakness of the eviction moratoria is one reason for another national trend also seen in Ithaca.

“We say that the rent eats first. People are prioritizing paying rent over paying for food, or for medicine that they might need like an inhaler or insulin,” she said.

The Ithaca Tenant’s Union (ITU) works with Cornell Law students on a new tenant hotline.* Based on calls made to the ITU, volunteer Ellie Pfeffer said tenants put rent above all else because of pressure from landlords. She doesn’t think the moratoria have changed anything.

“It doesn’t change the fact that landlords are going to do everything in their power to — and have been — to sow doubt in tenants, intimidate them, harass them, threaten them,” Pfeffer said.

Housing expert Liddy Bargar said the coalition plans to educate tenants, monitor courts, offer legal representation and, when necessary, pay off rent debts.

Cornell Law students and Legal Aid lawyers will provide pro-bono representation through the Ithaca initiative.  Usually, Bargar says landlords have legal representation while tenants do not.

“It shouldn’t be surprising but it still, like, hurts me, like here in our community we’re still falling into the same trap everywhere. Like, I know we all like to believe that Ithaca is somehow, you know, more ‘woke’, but we’re not,” she said.

Few tenants were willing to talk on the record. One single mom agreed to speak publicly, but in the end she couldn’t find the time. She said she was too busy working several jobs — to pay her rent.

Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter.