Rent advocates came together on Jan. 15 to compare notes and lick their wounds after a long battle in Bayonne and Hoboken to preserve rent control in their respective cities. The most recent of the now monthly meetings of the Bayonne Tenants Organization took place in a space usually reserved for AA and NA meetings. Residents of apartment buildings throughout Bayonne talked about the troubles they faced, sharing apocryphal tales of lack of heat, peeling paint, and alleged harassment to get them to leave and thus void their apartments of rent control protections.
After eking out a narrow victory in their fight to preserve rent control in Hoboken, members of the Hoboken Fair Housing Association met with the Bayonne Tenants Organization to talk about successful strategies that might be used to help to restore rent control, which the Bayonne City Council abolished in October 2012.
Bayonne advocates to restore rent control got the question on the ballot in November 2012, but lost by 500 votes. About 2,500 units out of 15,000 apartments citywide are overseen by rent control.
Although still locked into a legal battle with what they called “professional” outside agitators seeking to destroy rent control throughout the state, Hoboken advocates came to Bayonne to talk to local officials about how they organized their grassroots campaign against a well-funded campaign to destroy rent control, and how Bayonne might follow a similar organizing pattern to get enough votes to restore rent control in Bayonne as well.
“We’re hoping to get to 5,000 members.” – Pat Desmond
Mary Ondrejka, Dan Tumpson and Cheryl Falick talked about the long tumultuous history of rent control in Hoboken, where administration after administration sought to do away with it. This forced advocates to pursue a string of referendums and initiatives for a public vote to keep the protections in place.
Tumpson said that rent control came under serious attack as early as 1981, when he and others successfully got signatures for a referendum that gave the City Council a choice of repealing its rent control changes or let the public vote on the matter.
Each time, the council gave way and repealed the changes.
But in 2009, political forces in and outside of Hoboken changed tactics to get rid of rent control.
This may have coincided with a change in the real estate market that shifted from primarily condo development – which was not largely impacted by rent control – to rental development, which would have forced many new developments to eventually come under those terms.
More significantly impacted, however, would have been the renting of condominiums, whose rents would have fallen under rent control rules, said Falick.
Opponents of rent control in both Bayonne and Hoboken included apartment complex owners, realtors and others who employed high-priced professionals from out of Hudson County to help do away with rent control.
“One of these has been going around the state to get rid of rent control,” Falick said, noting that the tactics include distorting information in order to confuse voters so that the question as it appeared in Hoboken started off with a statement suggesting “yes” would preserve rent control when “no” did. Her group and others had to employ a number of countermeasures to inform the public. This included bulletins on the internet, letters to the editor, T-shirts, buttons and posters.
“But every time we put up a notice on a bulletin board, someone tore it down,” she said.
Ondrejka, who is a graphic designer by trade, was instrumental in developing t-shirt logos and buttons that helped create a common theme for the campaign, tactics the Bayonne group might use when it tries to get its rent control question back on the ballot.
Bayonne Tenants Organization barely a year old
The Bayonne Tenants Organization began in April 2012 in response to the City Council’s move to abolish rent control, and managed to collect about 48 percent of the total vote last November, despite being outspent by parties inside and outside Bayonne seeking to destroy rent control.
Since its inception, the group has signed on the residents of more than 80 buildings in Bayonne. It currently has about 20 organization captains and about 2,200 members city-wide.
“We’re hoping to get to 5,000 members,” said Pat Desmond, who leads the newly-formed political committee. He hopes to use this as a basis of a campaign to unseat some or all of the council members who voted to do away with rent control. “We need to get them all out of there since they all voted to away with rent control,” he said. “None of them reached out to us after the election to work with us.”
Desmond said the BTO should look into seeking the help of newly elected Rep. Donald Payne Jr., who represents a significant portion of Bayonne.
“He is a strong advocate of rent control,” Desmond said.
The organization is hoping to form three other committees, including hospitality, charity and civic committees, with the idea of keeping the issue alive in the public’s mind.
Ed Gillian, chairman of the organization, said between now and the 2014 municipal elections, the group is working to get the measure on the ballot again and to boost the numbers of their organization.
Although the group believes that the lack of power to polling places after Hurricane Sandy struck a few days prior to last November’s election, opposition to a new referendum will increase as some of the same groups that worked to beat the Hoboken rent control turn their attention on Bayonne.
What is fair?
Rent control was a post-World War II concept that was introduced to protect returning U.S. war veterans from being gouged by greedy landlords, who tried to take advantage of the lack of housing and the GI benefits many soldiers had.
Critics of rent control say the law is unfair to building owners who do not get the full benefit of their investment, and are forced to subsidize rents for those who live in such units.
According to Ron Simoncini, who was one of the leading advocates against rent control in Hoboken and played a small part in the Bayonne battle, rent control differs from Section 8 in that the homeowners are not penalized under Section 8. While the tenant pays less than market rate, the government makes up the difference. Under rent control, homeowners get only what the renter pays, and this is below what these units might rent for in an open market.
While landlords can pass along repair costs to tenants, it often takes years to recoup their investment and this discourages them from doing many repairs.
The other big difference between Section 8 and rent control is that Section 8 is based on need, while people living in rent-controlled apartments may or may not be poor, and sometimes poorer people may be paying more than wealthy people.
But rent control advocates point out that there has been an attack on affordable housing since the 1990s on every level. These attacks include changes to federal Section 8 laws, the gutting of the state’s affordable housing requirements, and increasing rental rates in an already expensive New York region. They claim that waiting lists for the needy can be years long, and that that many people who might qualify have become part of the hidden homeless, living in basements or spare rooms supplied by extended family members, or else they take up residence in illegal apartments. The BTO says that by getting rid of rent control, municipal governments put working and poor people in an even worse position, while realtors and large landlords rack up profits.