"Our jaws just dropped," said Mary Sprunger-Froese, a renter who lives above the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Center on East Fountain Boulevard with her husband Peter. "All along, [the city] had been talking about relocation benefits."
The benefits are important, she said, because most renters who will displaced are only paying $300 to $400 a month in rent. "Where are you going to find comparable rents for that kind of money in this town?" she asked.
The news came last week after the Sprunger-Froeses met with city staffer Audrey Miller, who recently took over management of the Lowell neighborhood project for the city.
"It certainly was a surprise," said Donna Johnson, who owns the old Victorian that houses both the Sprunger-Froeses and the Justice and Peace Center. "Everything we had been told led us to believe there would be relocation benefits."
For her part, Miller admitted that the city has no money for such benefits, but she said charges that the city is reneging on promises is "not totally correct."
"The city is not putting any city or federal funds into the project, but we are working on something," she said. "We are trying to see what we can do."
The city, she noted, is helping the Sprunger-Froeses move into a home owned by the Ithaca Land Trust, a locally run real estate trust that owns several local homes. Exactly how the city is helping is unclear, however, since Miller excused herself from a telephone interview before she could elaborate.
(Miller said she would call this reporter back "in a few minutes" because she had someone in her office when contacted by the Indy. Several hours later, after two more messages from the Indy, Miller called back to say she could not comment on the case, citing a new city communications policy that forbids city staffers from talking to the press without prior approval from upper management.)
But the loss of relocation funds throws the purchase of the Ithaca house into question, because the Sprunger-Froeses planned on using that money as a down payment, noted Johnson, who also serves on the board of the Ithaca Land Trust.
The promise of relocation benefits was a key reason that members of the Bijou Community, a collective of activists who help make decisions about the Justice and Peace Center, ultimately decided to sell their building, she said.
Members of that community initially did not want to sell the building and instead wanted it to be incorporated into the redevelopment of the neighborhood. The group also knew that if they decided not to sell -- or pay for the improvements being demanded by the city and the developer -- the city would likely invoke eminent domain and condemn the building.
Both the developer, Earl Robertson, managing partner in Lowell Development Partners, and the city have insisted that Johnson make substantial structural and cosmetic repairs to the building, which needs a new roof and has no central heating system. The repairs would cost upwards of $80,000, a city staffer estimated.
Johnson conceded that the city has been trying to work out solutions, even offering a low-interest loan to make the repairs that could be paid back when the building is sold. Johnson turned down the offer, however.
Whatever the case, letters from city staff, as well as minutes from Urban Renewal Board, back up the Sprunger-Froeses' claim that relocation benefits had been promised. A July 30, 1999 letter to Johnson from Lee Trovas, Miller's predecessor at the city, concluded that, "relocation benefits for Peter and Mary would approximate the difference between what they currently pay, and what a similar home might cost to rent in today's market, for a total of about eight months."
The couple might receive up to $33,600, as well as moving expenses, though Trovas noted that the figures were just estimates and are subject to negotiation. Likewise, minutes from an October 28, 1999 meeting of the Urban Renewal Board suggest relocation benefits would be given to area renters. "Staff have discussed the matter of relocation, and have determined that relocation costs should be paid to everyone -- business and residential -- and have suggested that the board take that position."