Can the working class and artists stay in Hoboken?

City discusses options for affordable housing
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Councilwoman Vanessa Falco, chair of the Affordable Housing Subcommittee and a resident of affordable housing.
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Mayor Ravi Bhalla said affordable housing is an important way Hoboken can retains its diverse community.
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Councilwoman Vanessa Falco, chair of the Affordable Housing Subcommittee and a resident of affordable housing.
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Mayor Ravi Bhalla said affordable housing is an important way Hoboken can retains its diverse community.

Councilwoman Vanessa Falco, who has long-time family roots in this town, knows that some of the people who have historically added to the fabric of Hoboken – artists, blue-collar workers – may have to leave town if their apartments become unaffordable or unliveable.
As a tenant of affordable housing on Jefferson Street, and as chair of the Affordable Housing Subcommittee on the council, she said during a Monday public meeting that since she moved into her unit 13 years ago, no other affordable housing has been completed.
“I felt it would be helpful to involve the community on affordable housing and not just through a subcommittee of three people working on this complex issue,” said Falco.
Monday evening, residents and city officials met to discuss the beginnings of a working group to establish goals for the City Council’s subcommittee on affordable housing and help tackle some of the issues.
In fact, Hoboken technically has a lot of government-designated affordable housing, but it’s rarely accessible to those who need it. People who got into it decades ago aren’t leaving, demand is growing, and some of the housing stock has aged out of the original government program that made it affordable.
The median rent for an apartment in Hoboken is $2,700, according to Zillow. If a longtime resident has to leave his or her housing, perhaps because the building becomes unliveable, does he or she have options in the city?
There are state and city laws in place that mandate that new developments include a certain percent of affordable housing, but developers have only finished a trickle of such units in the last decade.
“People have alleged that Hoboken is becoming less and less socioeconomically diverse and people are being pushed out and are subject to displacement,” said Mayor Ravi Bhalla. “People are alleging that we are becoming community of the uber-wealthy… and this results in Hoboken not being the Hoboken we know and love.”
In fact, most of those appointed to the town’s Zoning Board, which makes decisions on housing projects and variances from zoning rules, have been property owners, with few tenants chosen in a town full of renters.
Bhalla said at Monday’s meeting, “This is the beginning of an ongoing discussion on our affordable housing inventory, affordable housing mechanisms, and how do we extend those mechanisms and explore mechanisms we haven’t utilized yet.”

Types of affordable housing

Hoboken currently has at least five types of affordable housing.
The first is the low-income, federally subsidized housing that people sometimes refer to as “the projects,” run by the Hoboken Housing Authority. The 1,383 units are situated in 28 buildings on the west side of town, including several for senior citizens. While the rents are partly subsidized by the federal government, tenants pay the rest, depending on income. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) technically oversees these units, but they’re primarily managed by a local director and staff and overseen by a locally appointed volunteer Board of Commissioners.
Currently, there are 34 units vacant. But they require repairs and construction, so they’re not available yet, said Hoboken Housing Authority Commissioner Barbara Reyes.
The HHA also oversees and administers another type of affordable housing, Section 8 vouchers, which people can use to rent private apartments. The vouchers help cover the difference between the going rent and what people can afford to pay. Wait lists for these vouchers are usually long or closed.
The third type of affordable housing is the various rent-controlled units in the city. Rent control was established after World War II when housing stock was limited and demand was rising. The idea was to make sure that once a family put down roots in a unit, the landlord couldn’t jack up the rent and give them a choice of either an unfair rent, or having to move again.
Hoboken’s rent control ordinance was established in 1973. Generally, landlords can raise the rent a few percent a year, in accordance with the cost of living increase, and also pass along portions of property taxes and water surcharges. Landlords also can increase the rent in other instances, such as if they apply to the city for an “economic hardship” increase or if a longtime tenant has moved out after a certain number of years.
Over the years, the city has tried to adjust the law to keep up with societal changes, but has erred on the side of protecting tenants from an unfair eviction.
Bhalla, a former tenant lawyer, said, “Rent control units are an imperfect but essential means of preserving and protecting affordable housing.”
He added that due to the diligence of the council in years past, several resolutions have been voted down that could have unfairly changed or eliminated the Rent Control Ordinance.
The fourth type of affordable housing is inclusionary zoning, which requires a percentage of any new developments to allocate a portion of their units to be affordable. Megan York of Community Grants, Planning & Housing is the administrative agent for the city, which is in charge of the lottery system for residents who apply and qualify for new units built under this program.
According to York, five units have been built at 600 Harrison St. and are already occupied under the program, and 52 are under construction nearby. Forty-two of the nearby units are on Jackson Street.
Residents have applied for those units via a website, and were put into a lottery system. Those already living in town get preference.
Currently there are 7,000 people on the waiting list for the units, 800 of whom are Hoboken residents, she said.
The rent varies based on household income limits and the different types of units. She said rent will range from about $600 for a one bedroom to $1,350 for a three-bedroom.
The last type of affordable housing currently existing in Hoboken are large apartment complexes – like Clock Towers, Church Towers, and Marine View Plaza – created under special government programs in the 1960s and 1970s for moderate- and low-income residents. There is very low turnover with these units, and wait lists have been closed for years.
Decades ago, the developers received either a tax break or a low-interest loan, or other incentives, to build them, and made an agreement to keep the rents low. Some units have stopped being affordable because they aged out of the program.
Church Tower’s PILOT agreement – payments the developer makes in lieu of taxes – ended this year, and according to Council President Ruben Ramos, the city is in discussions with the owner to perhaps extend it as the council did in 2015 with Clock Towers.
Many city workers and teachers moved into the buildings when their incomes were low or moderate. Residents are not required to leave if their incomes become high. That’s why Hoboken residents will often hear talk of certain city officials who earn a salary, pension, and have bought land at the shore or elsewhere, who still live in affordable housing. In some cases, these residents with higher incomes pay an extra fee toward their rent.

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“People are alleging that we are becoming a community of the uber-wealthy… and this results in Hoboken not being the Hoboken we know and love.” — Mayor Ravi Bhalla

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Worth pursuing

Bhalla said the city is looking into finding more developers who specialize in affordable housing.
“These developers work with federal and state agencies to make entire buildings affordably subsidized,” said Bhalla. “I am in the process of talking with our legal counsel to see if that’s a possibility here.”
He said that perhaps the city could allocate portions of redevelopment zones to be reserved solely for this purpose.
“We live in a diverse community of people from many socioeconomic backgrounds, and we want residents who can live work and play in Hoboken,” said Bhalla. “That’s a major, major, major priority.”

Leaving the Housing Authority

Margie Marrero, who has lived in the Hoboken Housing Authority buildings for 59 years, said she believes the affordable housing units aren’t actually accessible or affordable for those who need them.
“What happens to people in the Housing Authority who want to move out of the Housing Authority but can’t afford those apartments?” she asked. “What happens to us and where do we stand? I don’t want to live there all my life. I would like to live somewhere else, but I am on disability I can’t afford that type of affordable housing. So does that mean I’m stuck?”
Cheryl Fallick, who sits on the city’s Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board, said at the meeting that she believes there could be a problem with the online lottery system used for the recent affordable units.
She said she believes the online system should be checked, because she has heard from a few residents who said they did not receive a lottery number.
York said she would look into it.
Resident Dina Petrozelli said some of the buildings that used to accept vouchers no longer do.
“At the end of the day, you have affordable housing, but they aren’t accepting our vouchers anymore in places like Marine View,” said Petrozelli. “There are thousands of people who live there who don’t need to live there.”
Some of the most notable cases, as has been pointed out in political campaigns over the years, are high-ranking politicians in Hoboken and Hudson County who have earned six-figure salaries and pensions and remained in “affordable” housing.
Petrozelli added that she believes there has to be a faster way the new affordable housing inclusionary units come online.
“You have 7,000 people on the list for affordable housing. This is obviously a need. Does it make sense not to have more units available?” she asked. “We will be dead by the time our name gets called.”
Hoboken resident Mike Evers said, “There is a perception that there are a substantial number of units for affordable housing that are no longer occupied by people who need affordable housing. There are also existing units in the housing projects that are empty. My question is, what mechanisms are available to the city to require the people living in affordable housing to actually need it. What’s the legal recourse?”
Councilwoman Jen Giattino, who also sits on the Affordable Housing Subcommittee, noted that people who live in affordable units created under government agreements must prove their income and pay a surcharge if they make over the amount based on their income.
Resident Hany Ahmed said that adding new housing is a good idea, but the city needs to also work to preserve the affordable housing units that already exist because the city will eventually run out of land that can be developed.

Resources for residents

Several residents said the city should provide a place to post information and resources about affordable housing and tenant rights.
Many new tenants are unaware of whether their unit is rent controlled, for instance. Almost all units in town built before 1987 are rent controlled, unless they are part of a government program like the aforementioned.
One woman suggested that there should be monthly signs hung in public buildings and lobbies advertising the city’s Tenant Advocate office hours, besides posting them in the media.
Bhalla said he’d consider putting the information in a citywide mailer, as they do with summer recreation activities.
Alissa Reeves, a relatively new resident, said the city should have an informational brochure with recommendations and referrals to legal offices in case a resident has an issue with a landlord.
Bhalla said he is hoping to rework and reopen the city’s office of constituent services, which could distribute information on affordable housing as well as help with “the whole gambit of issues residents face” in June.
Hoboken also has a tenant advocate, Andrew Sobel, who, for a few hours a week, offers legal counsel for any Hoboken resident who needs help or advice on housing matters. His contract was extended by the city this year to allow him to help represent residents in need in court. In the past he could only offer advice.
As of now, he said he is discussing who he will be able to represent, possibly those who can’t afford to fight their eviction.
He also refers people to the Waterfront Project, a local non profit with offices in Hoboken to help needy people with all sorts of legal cases. He also refers people to the Northeast New Jersey Legal Services in Jersey City.
Residents can schedule an appointment with Sobel at City Hall between 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 10, 17, and 31 and June 14 and 28. Residents can call George McCarthy in Sobel’s office in advance at (201) 338-7411 and provide a description of the issue to be discussed in order to schedule an appointment.
Residents who wish to apply for inclusionary affordable housing units can do so at www.affordablehomesnewjersey.com.
Falco said residents who wish to join working groups who did not sign up at the meeting can do so by emailing her at councilfalco@gmail.com.

Marilyn Baer can be reached at marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.