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Hoboken City Council seeks to help renters during COVID-19

The Hoboken City Council passed legislation aiming to protect renters from rent increases.

In March, Gov. Phil Murphy approved a moratorium due to the coronavirus pandemic on all evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency as well as relief from mortgage-related fees and charges, and a 90-day grace period for some mortgage payments.

The Hoboken City Council has taken that a step further and introduced an emergency ordinance that aims to protect tenants in rent-controlled apartments from rent increases while the state of emergency is in effect.

It also adopted a resolution urging landlords not to raise rents or fees, including tax, water, or sewer surcharges, during the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as a resolution urging the governor and the state to take steps to stop late fees and charges from accruing as a result of the nonpayment of rent.

The ordinance

According to the ordinance, sponsored by council members Emily Jabbour and Michael Russo, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are significant and pose a growing threat to the housing security of many New Jersey residents.

In light of these financial hardships and the moratorium on eviction proceedings, “The city has determined that the regulation, control and stability of rents is best served by placing an immediate, temporary moratorium on all rent increases until no later than two months following the end of the [city’s] state of emergency.”

The moratorium prevents any increase in the amount paid in rent or any additional charges by tenants, including but not limited to charges for parking, pets, the use of furniture, security deposits, and damage and cleaning deposits.

After the moratorium period ends, a landlord will be able to increase the rent and surcharges to levels that would have otherwise been permitted under law. Future increases in rent and surcharges will be permissible and calculated as if the moratorium never occurred.

The ordinance was accompanied by an emergency resolution that waived the 20-day waiting period for the ordinance to take effect.

Opposition and support raised

“I am so against freezing rent control increases,” said resident and former councilman Tony Soares during the public portion of the meeting. “They aren’t freezing mortgage payments or condo association increases.”

He said that rent-controlled apartments aren’t affordable housing and not based on income, and that most landlords would likely not raise rent because no one is currently looking to move.

Attorney Charles Gormally spoke on behalf of 25 landlords, urging the council to reconsider the ordinance and the waiver of the waiting period.

He said that it sent the wrong message and would lead to tenants simply not paying the rent.

He said that in most cases an increase was no more than 2 percent and by suspending them indefinitely the city is “foisting the economic consequences on a discrete sect of regulated property owners.”

He said the ordinance does not require tenants to prove they have had a negative economic impact due to the coronavirus and instead “gives money to people who may be experiencing financial distress.”

He said tenants impacted by the pandemic have a number of rent assistance programs that are available to them along with income continuation through the state unemployment insurance program.

He also said that by waiving the waiting period, the council removed the public’s right to referendum to dispute the ordinance, which can not be conducted during the pandemic due to social-distancing orders and travel bans.

“While we are prepared to protect the public’s right to exercise referendum authority by seeking to restrain further municipal action and the possible adoption of the ordinance, our overarching preference is not to engage in costly and time-consuming litigation during these very difficult times,” he said.

Resident and tenant advocate Cheryl Fallick said she supported the ordinance, noting that it does not take money away from landlords, because tenants will still be required to pay their rent. It just freezes the rent where it is and prevents it from being increased.

She said she already heard from tenants who were facing a “whopping” tax surcharge of $200 and $300.

Jabbour called the ordinance a “no brainer” and said she was shocked that litigation was threatened, noting that tenants have already been hit with “massive increases,” and the ordinance will give tenants the ability to plan a budget as they try to figure out the economic crisis.

Russo said that a lot of the state initiatives put forth are property owner and landlord related, and “this is an attempt to make sure we are not forgetting tenants.”

The ordinance was adopted by the city council in an 8-0 vote. Council President Jen Giattino abstained.

She said the city needed to have faith that landlords would do the right thing and work with their tenants, noting that this is the type of “legislation that makes everyone feel good, but I think it has unintended consequences.”

Mayor Ravi Bhalla supported the ordinance in a statement after the meeting.

“Residents in rent-controlled apartments, many of whom are struggling financially, due to COVID-19, now have the peace of mind that their rent will not be increased for the near future,” Bhalla said. “Hoboken is here to help tenants during these difficult times, and I thank Councilman Russo and Councilwoman Jabbour for co-sponsoring this important legislation.”

The ordinance is up for second and final reading before the council on April 15.

Tenants or landlords with questions, including whether or not a specific apartment is rent controlled, should call the Hoboken Rent Leveling and Stabilization Office at (201) 420-2396 ext. 2062 between  9 a.m.  4 p.m. Monday through Friday or email shetman@hobokennj.gov.

If a residential tenant is getting a notice of eviction, despite the statewide moratorium, contact Caroline Caulfield at the Office of Constituent Affairs at ccaulfield@hobokennj.gov.

Hoboken’s Tenant Advocate, Andrew Sobel, Esq. is taking phone appointments to offer free legal advice for Hoboken tenants related to their tenancy.

Residents should email bevans@sobelhan.com or call 201-470-6233 to schedule an appointment.

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

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