Rent control saga to continue Wednesday; Tenant advocates say new ordinance is still flawed
Peace, love and harmony do not reign supreme in the complex world of rent control reform politics, even though Councilman Stephen Hudock moved at the last City Council meeting to repeal his controversial reform measure nearly a month after its passage set off a storm of protest. Tenant activists, who amassed more than 1,800 signatures from city residents to force Hudock to take his original rent reform measure off the books, were outraged after they had a chance to look at the fine print of the new ordinance that the councilman introduced two weeks ago in its place. They say that although the new ordinance does not include the controversial "vacancy decontrol" language that ignited the furor originally, it includes new "exemptions" that would allow landlords to skirt the city's Rent Control Law. The original reform ordinance, passed in March, allowed landlords of affordable housing buildings that were coming off government control to set market rents in 30 percent of the units once they became vacant, and to follow rent control for the other 70 percent. Tenant advocates and a minority of council members said that all of the units should come under rent control, which holds rent increases to a few percentage points each year. They also protested a part of the new ordinance that decontrolled small owner-occupied multifamily dwellings. After tenant advocates got enough signatures to force a referendum, the council decided to put a repeal measure on the agenda instead in order to avoid a costly citywide vote. A final vote on Hudock's measures to repeal his original ordinance and to pass his new one could come as early as this Wednesday, when the council is scheduled to meet again. The administration of Mayor Anthony Russo, along with Hudock and a majority of the council, have argued that changes to the city's original Rent Control Law (passed in 1973) are necessary to protect the residents of Clock Towers, a downtown residential apartment building. The building, which was built more than 25 years ago to house low- and moderate-income families, once had its rents regulated by the federal government rather than the Rent Control Law. But the federal government is getting out of the rent regulation business due to changes it has made to the voucher programs that some low- and moderate-income families use to help pay their monthly rents. After consulting with city lawyers earlier this year, Russo and Hudock concluded that if they did not take action, there was a chance that owners of buildings like Clock Towers and more than a dozen similar city projects could raise rents to market rates by claiming that they were - and always had been - exempt from the Rent Control Law. They proposed and passed complex rent control reform ordinance. But tenants'-rights activists, like Daniel Tumpson and Annette Illing, cried foul. They argued that the Rent Control Law would have protected the tenants of Clock Towers without any changes and that city officials were just using the Clock Towers issue to try and ram an anti-tenant reform package through the council. Last Wednesday night, it looked like their arguments had carried the day, but after a careful review of Hudock's new proposal, Tumpson thinks that tenants' rights activists may be in for a fight as big and important as the one that preceded it. Not good enough?
Tumpson's concerns center around two changes that he says Hudock's ordinance would make. The first of these would allow apartments that are "subsidized" or "financed" by state and federal agencies to be exempt from rent control. This change would allow a landlord to set a higher rent than he would receive under rent control for an apartment provided that a portion of the tenant's rent is paid through a state or federal voucher program. While Tumpson recognizes that such a change alone might make it more desirable for a landlord to rent to vouchered tenants, the long time tenants'-rights activist is concerned that it will actually lead to the erosion of the affordable housing base in the city. "They have also changed the way that they are going to calculate the base rent," said Tumpson by phone Wednesday, his voice rising with agitation. "What happens is that when the vouchered tenant leaves, the base rent becomes whatever he was paying including the voucher. So if he was paying $300 and the government was kicking in $700, the new base rent will be $1,000 even if the previous base rent was substantially less when the tenant moved in." Tumpson added, "This is a gimmick to decontrol rents ironically using a government agency whose purpose was to provide affordable housing. They are making a loophole to decontrol rents, and the sickening thing about it is that they are characterizing it as helping tenants." If this passes, tenant's-rights activists say they may be forced to take the streets again to gather the signatures necessary to erase it from the books. In addition to making the changes that Tumpson points to, Hudock's measure also clearly places project-based buildings whose rents had once been regulated by the federal government, like Clock Towers, under the purview of the city's Rent Control Law. It also petitions state and federal legislators to take action to ensure that owners of properties containing subsidized units can not circumvent local rent control laws. Hudock could not be reached by press time to respond to Tumpson's concerns. And then there's...
Layered on top of this debate is more complexity surrounding Hudock's original about-to-be-repealed ordinance. Tumpson says that it's possible that the original matter will still go to a referendum despite the introduction of the repeal. Tumpson said that state law is "quite clear" that the ordinance needs to be repealed within 20 days of the submission of a valid petition to the city clerk. The fact that the council has initiated action on an appeal does not qualify as "final action," argued Tumpson, and time has run out on the council since the petitions were certified on April 19. City officials don't see it that way.
"Their assessment is not accurate," said Public Information Officer Michael Korman. "My understanding is that since the City Council took action by approving the repeal on first reading, there will be no election, provided the ordinance is approved at the second and third readings." Tumpson says that he is willing to take the case to the courts. "Unless we establish with a referendum vote that the voters do not want the mayor and the City Council to destroy rent control, the council will continue to introduce new amendments every few weeks until the citizens give up," he said. According to state law, the special election would have to be put to the voters between June 28 and July 18, so Hoboken residents may face a local election on Hudock's original ordinance after it has been repealed. Complicating matters further, the election could take place just after - or perhaps in the midst of - a petition drive focused on blocking Hudock's more recent rent control reform measure. Rent control flyer raps Roberts, Ramos, Soares
An anonymous flyer singing the praises of Mayor Anthony Russo and his political allies and taking a jab at the mayor's political foes was shoved under the doors of residents of Marine View Plaza, Applied Housing and other buildings where many low- and moderate-income families live last week. The flyer, which was not signed or printed on letterhead, credits Russo and the six City Council members he works with for their efforts "to protect you from significant rent increases in your rental unit." It also implies that the other three City Councilmen, Dave Roberts, Ruben Ramos Jr. and Tony Soares, are not interested in similar protections It points out that they voted "no" on a rent control reform ordinance proposed by Councilman Steve Hudock. It does not mention that the three councilman, who sit elbow-to-elbow and see eye-to-eye at meetings, said they only voted "no" on the ordinance considered at last week's City Council meeting because they were worried that it would actually undermine tenants' rights, not serve them. Since the debate on rent control reform began earlier this year, the three councilmen have consistently opposed the Russo administration's views on the issue and sided with activists who gathered more than 1,800 signatures to block implementation of a City Hall-backed ordinance that passed in March. Roberts, Ramos and Soares took the political attack in stride last week, saying it was what they had come to expect from Russo and his administration. "They are in the distortion business," said Roberts of Russo. "It reminds me of Castro in the way that they will deliberately create propaganda. We are just outraged over the arrogance and the lies that come out of this administration. He insults people. It's not just us. He insults the intelligence of the community to assume that 1,800 people would sign a petition against an ordinance that he created and that endangers people's living situation and then just forget about it. When confronted by the tenants'-rights activists, they were completely stopped in their tracks, and they put this flyer out to try and create propaganda." When asked about the flyer, which says in giant 24-point red letters, "from Mayor Anthony Russo," the mayor said that he was unaware of it. When informed of its content, he said that he did not disagree with the overall message behind it. He pointed out that the topic came to light because concerned residents began to contact him and other members of the administration asking them to look into the situation at Clock Towers, a residential apartment building. Due to some changes at the federal level, that building was coming off of federal regulation of rents, and some tenants were concerned that it might not fall under the city's rent control law. "The only reason that this issue came to light was because of people like [City Councilman] Stephen Hudock, [Environmental Services Director] Tim Calligy and others," the mayor said Wednesday. "Roberts, Ramos and Soares had no idea what the needs of these people were. When they speak about vision, they are the ones who have no vision. Twenty-five to 30 years ago, there were all kinds of agreements made between developers, the city and other governments. There are certain needs that we have to address to update those agreements. We are addressing those needs, and that was the original change."