War of words

Short-term rental community disputes wording of November referendum's interpretive statement

The short-term rental community has threatened legal action against the city over the wording of the Nov. 5 referendum's interpretive statement.
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The short-term rental community has threatened legal action against the city over the wording of the Nov. 5 referendum's interpretive statement.

Short-term rentals continue to spark debate in Jersey City. A group representing the short-term rental community has taken issue with the approved wording of the interpretive statement set to accompany the Nov. 5 referendum that could repeal new laws and regulations the community must follow.

Attorneys for “Keep Our Homes” say the interpretive statement purposely omits information they believe the public needs in order to cast their votes. It not only misleads the public, they say, but violates state law.

New rules

The ordinance, adopted in June, prohibits short-term rentals for more than 60 days in properties where the owner does not live onsite. It prohibits short-term rentals entirely in buildings with more than four units.

Renters are not allowed to serve as short-term rental hosts.

To operate a short-term rental under the ordinance, property owners are required to obtain a permit through the city’s Division of Housing Preservation. Each permit is valid for one year and must be renewed annually.

The ordinance phases out existing short-term rental contracts Jan. 1, 2021.

Citing low vacancy rates for long-term rentals, the ordinance says, “It is in the public interest that short-term rental uses be regulated in order to help preserve housing for long-term tenants and to minimize any potential deleterious effects of short-term rental properties on other properties in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

On Aug. 7, City Clerk Robert Byrne certified petitions, organized by “Keep Our Homes,” forcing a referendum on the ordinance.

According to the certification, the petitioners submitted 2,406 petitions with approximately 19,656 signatures.

The council was officially notified of the clerk’s certification during the Aug. 14 council meeting. The council refused to repeal the ordinance, forcing it onto the ballot because the deadline to repeal the ordinance was Sept. 3.

Interpretive statement interpreted

The interpretive statement reads: “This ordinance regulates the operation of short-term residential property rentals in Jersey City. Property owners in Jersey City who wish to make their residential units available for short-term leases, including through any Internet-based platforms (e.g., Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, etc.), shall obtain a permit for their use as short-term rentals based on the ordinance’s regulatory requirements. These regulations include, but are not limited to, limitations on the size/number of units in residential buildings that may be used as short-term rentals, compliance with City noise, garbage/sanitation, and parking laws, requiring all short-term rentals to be operated by an on-site property owner, and periodic safety inspections. Violations of the regulations presented herein, in addition to substantiated violations of the City Code and/or State law, may result in temporary or permanent suspension of a property owner’s permit to offer their property for short-term rental purposes, as well as fines and penalties. The terms of this ordinance shall become effective on January 1, 2020.

In two letters dated Sept. 9 and Sept. 10 to Jersey City’s Corporation Counsel Peter Baker, attorneys representing Keep Our Homes argued the interpretive statement should be rejected and replaced with more detail.

They argued that the statement did not include that short-term rentals are already regulated by a previous ordinance, the new ordinance repeals those regulations, and “certain classes of residents” including renters “are prohibited altogether from sharing their homes.”

“These omissions violate settled New Jersey law requiring that the consequences of a referendum be included in its interpretive statement—if an interpretive statement is used in the first place,” states the letter, noting that if the interpretive statement is unclear it prevents voters from understanding the true purpose of the question.

The letter goes on, “We stand ready to work with the Council and Council staff to address these issues but should the Council continue to ignore New Jersey law, the Committee will have little choice but to take legal action to ensure that Jersey City voters’ constitutional right to an accurate ballot is respected. Such needless delay and expense would be a disservice to the voters of Jersey City, who, bolstered by an understanding of the full consequences of their votes, must be allowed to participate fully in the governance of their city.”

On Sept. 11, despite the debate and threat of a lawsuit, the Jersey City Council unanimously adopted a resolution approving the interpretive statement of the referendum.

Airbnb spokeswoman Liz DeBold Fusco said, “We believe that the interpretative statement prepared by the city is misleading, incomplete, and biased. We are committed to fight for our community to have a fair election and are currently considering our options for recourse.”

Should legal action be taken, the referendum could be moved to a special election after the Nov. 5 election.

 For updates on this and other stories keep checking www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.