ITHACA, N.Y. –– As a follow-up to their “housing hotline” created over the summer, the Ithaca Tenants Union, in conjunction with Cornell Law School, has developed a new course for law students that will include providing legal representation and assistance to local renters.
Back in June, ITU partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York and Cornell Law School and with the help of an engaged opportunity grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, created a housing hotline providing Ithaca tenants with brief legal advice about their rights and options when dealing with their landlords. In the three months since its inception, nearly 100 Ithaca tenants have contacted the hotline and received assistance from Cornell Law students and pro bono attorneys.
“From its inception in June, we were able to recruit more private attorney volunteers to do more trainings and have ongoing connections with the law students. It was really a great project for the law students during the summer because some of them had truncated summers with their law firms or other legal work,” said Michaela Azemi, director of Pro Bono Services and Externships at Cornell Law School and one of the key organizers of the hotline.
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“There’s just an enormous amount of energy from the law students that they want to give back to the local community, especially due to COVID. And they see housing as such an important piece of the relief effort,” she said.
The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has thrown countless renters into financial uncertainty –– unemployment in Tompkins County has skyrocketed to more than 10% since the start of the pandemic –– and exposed tenants to potential eviction threats, even with the legal moratorium in place passed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March.
Now, as classes begin on East Hill, ITU has announced its partnership with the law school creating a new Tenants Advocacy Practicum to expand and support the work of the housing hotline to provide representation to tenants facing eviction, conditions issues and homelessness. As was ITU’s goal for the hotline, the practicum aims to level the playing field in landlord/tenant disputes –– allowing renters to feel more equipped to deal with problems with their landlords who may have more expertise or access to legal representation.
“The mission of the Tenants Union is to build tenant power in the face of existing power imbalances between landlords and renters. One massive power imbalance is the monetary power landlords have to take vulnerable, struggling tenants, who almost always cannot afford legal representation, to court,” said Cornell senior Liel Sterling and one of the creators of the tenants union. “This legal practicum, which will represent tenants free of cost, gets us that much closer to shifting the power balance.”
Sterling continued about the immense growth ITU has seen in less than a year of existence. The union was formed in March and has since made headlines not only for their housing hotline, but also for their #cancelrent campaign asking Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and the New York State Department of Health to issue an executive order forgiving three months of rent.
“When I founded the Tenants Union with two other renters, we were just a small group seeking to build tenant solidarity. Where we are now reflects the immense power of community organizing,” she said.
The practicum, taught by Professor William Niebel and consisting of a group of 12 students, both Cornell law students and Cornell undergraduates, will meet weekly to discuss cases that come through the hotline and accept some as full-scope cases. Professor Niebel, in addition to serving as an Adjunct Professor at Cornell Law, is a Staff Attorney at Legal Services of Central New York, with an extensive background in landlord-tenant law.
“It’s an exciting new development,” Niebel said. “The hope is it’ll continue into the spring and as a practicum of comparable size and then be expanded even in the future to something more.”
Azemi, director of Pro Bono Services and Externships at the law school, reiterated how the practicum will benefit local tenants beyond the hotline.
“I think one of the exciting things is because of the because of the amount of time and effort that goes into creating this pilot program, we really started slow with a brief advice model where were giving tenants information but we weren’t able to take those cases any further,” she said. “But now with the practicum, the students can work with Professor Niebel and take on a couple of those really pressing emergency cases and follow them through to the end.”
Cases that go beyond the capacity of the practicum will be handled by the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York –– another added benefit of the partnership that creates a pipeline for renters to receive assistance whether it be through Cornell or LASMNY.
The hotline will continue to operate alongside the practicum, with the goal of serving as many tenants as possible. Ithaca tenants can reach out to the hotline by email ([email protected]), phone (607-301-1560), or online on the ITU website.
Attorneys interested in volunteering to mentor a law student on the hotline or take on pro bono matters in partnership with law students virtually can contact Azemi at [email protected].