Whenever the upcoming elections are held in Bayonne – if not this Tuesday, then in a coming week – voters will get to decide about the future of rent control in this city, although the wording of referendum No. 1 seems confusing to some.
“You can’t possibly know how to vote from the question as it reads,” said Councilwoman Debra Czerwienski, who is seeking to have the question defeated so that rent control will be phased out. Voting no would retain changes passed by the City Council that will gradually bring an end to rent control in Bayonne.
Advocates seeking to retain rent control are asking residents to vote yes on the referendum.
Last November, the City Council voted to adopt an ordinance that largely does away with rent control in the city by removing rent control from any unit after a current tenant leaves. Using an alternative law to get a public vote on rent control, pro-rent control activists successfully got enough petition signatures to qualify for a ballot referendum on maintaining the old rent control law – and in fact, to tighten the law, making additional restrictions to landlords. Thus, voting yes on the tenant advocates’ measure will keep rent control.
“We have good landlords in this city who maintain their property.” – Ed Gilligan
“The seniors are protected, so are the disabled and those with low income,” she said. “We’ve even protected those who are currently living in rent control apartments. This change is good for the city.” She noted that city housing -- a good portion of which was constructed prior to World War II -- needs to be upgraded and rent control poses obstacles to property owners who wish to rebuild and get a justifiable return on their investment in the property.
“If property owners are allowed to rehab for incoming new tenants and set new rates, they can get more if the apartment is in good shape,” said Ron Simoncini of Bayonne Progress, who is actively opposed to rent control not just in Bayonne, but is currently working against it in Hoboken and elsewhere in the state. “Under rent control, this wouldn’t happen.”
He said unlike Hoboken where he has been working for a while, his group has only been active in Bayonne for about three weeks, trying to educate the public about the downside of maintaining existing rent control.
About 2,500 units out of 15,000 apartments citywide are overseen by rent control, and unlike in Hoboken, the disparity between market rate and rent control rents is not that great. Where as people in Hoboken might be paying $400 to $700 for an apartment that might otherwise cost $2,500, in Bayonne the difference is a matter of a few hundred dollars. With a 9.5 percent vacancy rate in Bayonne, residents can shop around for more affordable housing without forcing the landlord to bear the brunt of subsidizing rents.
“In Bayonne, landlords are already cutting rents, not on the higher cost rental units, but on the lower end units,” he said. “Nobody wants to move into the lower rental units because they aren’t improved.”
Advocates for rent control such as Ed Gilligan, committee chairman for the Bayonne Tenant’s Association, claim that the poor, seniors and disabled are not as protected as City Council members claim, since public housing has a two-year waiting period and that by eliminating rent control, residents could find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords who would find ways to drive them out in order to rid their buildings of rent control.
Simoncini, who has been involved in rent control opposition for more than 23 years throughout the state, said there have been no cases during the last three years of landlord intimidation, partly because of the odious penalties that would be imposed if a landlord was convicted. Tenants, he said, have four levels of protection, the city council, the building inspectors, local courts and the state Department of Community Affairs. Harassment, he said, is punishable by five years in jail, and is the equivalent of consumer fraud, and he said that if a town does do away with rent control, penalties for harassment should be increased.
“People can be made to fear it, but there is no evidence that it actually happens,” he said.
Gilligan, however, argued that even if public housing was available, people who move there actually take away from the tax rolls and force taxpayers to bear the burden of paying for the rent. Public housing does not pay local property taxes, but rent controlled private apartments do.
Gilligan said good landlords continue to make improvements on rent control units.
“We have good landlords in this city who maintain their property,” he said. “It’s the next generation who want to come in here and make a killing that want to get rid of rent control.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.