A recent in-depth report by Ward E Councilman James Solomon has revealed severe problems for people who live in rent controlled buildings. Not only are they being pushed out of their homes to allow property owners to convert those units to market rate, but many residents do not even know they are living under rent control.
The report also showed that many residents do not know what their rights are or how to protect themselves, a failing, Solomon said, that falls on the shoulders of local government.
While the report focused on the downtown area, Solomon said these are issues residents in other parts of Jersey City will face as development moves off the waterfront area and to previously underdeveloped areas.
“Just because we focused on downtown, we see this may be a problem in other parts of the city, as landlords see the incentive to turn property over to market rate,” Solomon said.
He said the report is a warning of a problem that has been worsening for years.
“There wasn’t enough done over the years,” he said. “We know the system is broken and it is partly up to the council to amend the laws to protect tenants.”
‘A stark conclusion’
The report, which follows a six-month grassroots effort by Solomon’s office and a team of local volunteers, documents a pattern of skyrocketing rent increases, profit-driven tenant displacement, and landlords who frequently flout disclosure requirements without consequence.
“Our report leads to a stark conclusion: the system of rent control in Jersey City is broken,” Solomon said. “Landlords operate with near impunity while tenants live unaware of their rights.”
According to the report, over 50 percent of tenants interviewed by Solomon’s team did not know they lived in a rent-controlled unit, and more than 90 percent reported not being given the legally-required rental statement disclosing the previous tenants’ rent. Seventy-eight percent of landlords’ annual rent registration forms failed to disclose required information that could identify illegal rent increases.
The report further documents a recurring pattern of unchecked, likely illegal rent increases resulting in mass displacement of long-term residents. In Ward E, some rent-controlled apartments cost as much as $5,850 a month.
Over 50 percent of tenants moved into their units within the last seven years, a shocking statistic given the monetary value of a rent controlled unit. In extreme cases, some landlords have managed to demolish their rent-controlled buildings outright, permanently removing residents’ access to moderately-priced units without the property’s rent-control status ever being questioned during the demolition approval process.
Solomon said he will be offering recommendations to the city council that will address some of these problems.
“While the mayor has acted in appointing new leadership and new directors, and hopefully these leaders will bring about changes, action is not happening quickly enough,” Solomon said.
People are still being displaced, and the city needs to make changes that will keep it from happening.
Solomon said he will recommend that the council set up committees to revise city laws.
Solomon recommended a number of actions by the city. They include maintaining a publicly searchable database of all rent controlled units in Jersey City with rents listed, engaging in proactive outreach to tenants to alert them that they live in a rent controlled unit while offering education on how to fill out disclosure forms properly, and fining landlords who submit incomplete rent registrations.
The report also recommends an analysis of the rent rolls for evidence of illegal rent increases or high rates of turnover and encouraging tenants who may be subject to illegal rent increases to contest them.
By simplifying and streamlining the process by which tenants challenge illegal rent increases, and ending the “vacancy loophole” for capital repairs that would remove the incentive for landlords to push out tenants in order to increase rents, Solomon hopes to reset tenant and landlord relations.
Solomon also said there should be an end to the “demolition loophole” to stop the permanent loss of units.
Fulop says action is underway
Mayor Steven Fulop said many of the recommendations are already underway.
“The issues Councilman Solomon is citing regarding the rent control system are in line with what the administration has identified and is already correcting,” according to a release issued by the mayor’s office. “The rent control system has been inadequate in the past, which is why Mayor Fulop pushed to create the new Division of Housing Preservation – combining Tenant/Landlord Relations and Housing Code Enforcement under one umbrella to streamline the processes and services these offices provide and create more oversight.”
The mayor’s office went on to say that under this new direction, enforcement has been more strict and strategic.
“Registration is being digitalized to avoid handwritten applications submitted with gaps. Summonses are being issued against landlords, with more in the pipeline,” the mayor’s office said. “The division is also currently reviewing the rent rolls and issuing determinations where the rents are not in compliance. We are doing this whether the tenant files a complaint or not. In other words, we are proactively enforcing the ordinance, not simply being reactive.”
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org