Revamping rent control

Jersey City Council considers changes to local rent control laws

The Jersey City council subcommittee is working to change the city's rent control laws with new legislation scheduled to be proposed in November.
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The Jersey City council subcommittee is working to change the city's rent control laws with new legislation scheduled to be proposed in November.

Over the next few months, a special committee of the City Council will consider reforming Jersey City’s rent control laws to better protect renters from rising rents and displacement.

The ad hoc committee, composed of Council President Rolando Lavarro, Council members Richard Boggiano, Mira Prinz-Arey, Michael Yun, and co-chaired by Council members James Solomon and Joyce Watterman, will host a series of public meetings to discuss the current law. Testimony from experts and community stakeholders will be heard.

Over the next several months, the committee will consider new policies and procedures and present a final draft of a newly-crafted ordinance to be introduced by the Nov. 26 council meeting. It will include a set of best practices to keep “reasonably-priced” housing within the means of current residents.

“Over 70 percent of Jersey City residents are renters, and nearly half of them are already paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent alone,” said Solomon. “Almost a quarter pay more than 50 percent of their income to stay in their homes.”

According to research by RentCafe, the national average rent reached $1,430 a month in March 2019, a year-over-year increase of 3.2 percent. Jersey City apartments are the most expensive of the state’s large cities analyzed, with an average rent of $2,909.

“We’re seeing a rapid increase in homelessness,” said Solomon. “The people of Jersey City can’t afford to wait. They’re being pushed out now, and they need protection now.”

He added, “Jersey City is made of its people, not the total number of pennies real estate interests can make off the highest bidders. Our community’s housing crisis is not just economic; it’s moral.”

Current laws

Local rent control laws are applied to buildings with more than four residential units built before 1984 with some exemptions, including low rent public housing developments, licensed hotels or motels, commercial and industrial space, and newly constructed dwellings with 25 or more units within a redevelopment area.

Jersey City’s rent control ordinance limits annual rent increases or a “cost of living increase” to no more than 4 percent but allows landlords to increase the rent for large capital improvements to the building or unit.

It also establishes anti-harassment laws for tenants, a rent-leveling board to hear appeals and includes landlord requirements such as filing deadlines and specific services like heat.

It also includes penalties for landlords who violate the ordinance, including a maximum fine of up to $2,000 and or imprisonment for a period of up to 90 days and or 90 days of community service.

However, if the homeowner violates the section pertaining to solid waste disposal the maximum penalty is $10,000 and a minimum of $2,500.

Recent testimony

According to the most recent meeting held by the committee on Sept. 19, despite the rules tenants are still facing harassment, threats of eviction, difficult living conditions, and being overcharged for rent.

Some tenants testified before the council that they weren’t informed their unit was subject to rent control.

According to testimony by Rebecca Symes of The Waterfront Project, a nonprofit that offers free legal advice and representation for economically disadvantaged Hudson County residents, these instances are not uncommon.

She suggested several ways the council could strengthen the city’s rent control ordinance, including making provisions to ensure tenants know that their property is subject to rent control by including the language in lease agreements.

She also said landlords often fail to file their annual rent registrations, which helps them get away with ignoring the rent control laws.

“These things must carry more severe penalties, or you will continue to see what we have seen which is rampant noncompliance,” Symes said. “Non-compliance robs not only the tenants of the right to assert their rights, but of government agencies to enforce the rent control ordinance.”

Another ordinance

One change, which was on the Sept. 26 council agenda, would have amended the rent control ordinance to eliminate the exemption of newly constructed buildings with more than 25 units in a redevelopment area. But the council tabled the ordinance, introduced by the administration, 8-0 before its second and final vote for adoption.

During the meeting, Solomon said the committee would consider the amendment in two weeks at the next council meeting on Oct. 10 because the council hadn’t had a discussion on the amendment. The committee wanted to have time to continue its hearings and be given a chance to “better understand the administration’s views.”

Timeline

According to the special council committee, the next committee hearing was scheduled for Oct. 2 to hear testimony from landlord and management companies and stakeholder.

On Oct. 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. the committee will hear testimony from academic, law, and policy experts. Work begins on Oct. 30 at a rough draft workshop before a final draft is presented for first reading to the entire council on Nov. 26. The vote on final reading is Dec. 18.

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.