Alumni Short

Ithaca Responds to Tenants in Crisis: Pro Bono and a Practicum

Ithaca, NEW YORK, November 3, 2020

By Michaela K. Rossettie Azemi, Esq., director of pro bono services and externships, Cornell University; Hannah Middlebrooks, Cornell Law School; and Daniel Norris, coordinator of the ITU Housing Hotline, Cornell University.

In June of 2020, Cornell Law School partnered with the Ithaca Tenants Union and the Binghamton office of the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York to establish the Ithaca Tenants Union Housing Hotline (ITUHH). With the help of numerous dedicated law student and undergraduate volunteers, local attorneys, and a grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, the ITUHH has provided legal assistance to more than 100 Ithaca tenants since its inception. 

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Here’s how the ITUHH works. Tenants seeking legal advice for a housing matter submit an intake form which is then assigned to a Cornell Law student. The law student reviews the case, confers with a volunteer attorney, and then gives the client brief legal advice. This fall, a practicum course titled the Tenants Advocacy Practicum was established at Cornell Law School as an expansion of the work of the hotline. The practicum is taught by Legal Services of Central New York attorney William Niebel, and provides Cornell Law students the unique opportunity to participate in the local Ithaca community. Students take on ITUHH cases as part of their coursework, which allows the ITUHH to efficiently take on an increased volume of cases. Though the practicum is new to Cornell Law, it has already garnered an exciting level of interest from law students. 

Given the widespread economic hardship caused by the pandemic, many tenants in New York State find themselves in precarious housing situations. Though the New York State eviction moratorium has prevented many tenants from facing eviction thus far during the pandemic, eviction is far from the only problem tenants face. The ITUHH regularly assists clients recover security deposits, address issues of habitability, and more. 

A 2018 study in Ithaca City Court showed that only about 3% of tenants in Ithaca who were evicted had legal representation, as compared to 97% of landlords. Furthermore, where race was identifiable, 54% of people evicted were Black despite comprising a mere 7% of the Ithaca population. Unlike in other parts of New York State, there is no right to counsel in Ithaca. The ITUHH and Cornell Law School’s creation of the Tenants Advocacy Practicum together seek to address the starkly disproportionate impact of displacement on low-income communities and people of color in Ithaca. 

If you are interested in helping to protect housing rights during these uncertain times by mentoring law students or offering pro bono services virtually, please contact Cornell Law School Director of Pro Bono Services and Externships Michaela Azemi at ma688@cornell.edu.

This story originally appeared in the New York State Bar Association Pro Bono Newsletter, Fall 2020 Edition.