Jersey City freezes rents

City Council pauses rent increases; community members urge rent-relief funds

Some renters in certain types of apartments can breath a bit easier now that the Jersey City Council adopted an ordinance and resolution on May 6 which will put rent increases on pause.

Unanimously introduced on April 22 and sponsored by Ward E Councilman James Solomon, the ordinance will freeze rents due to the COVID-19 pandemic until Aug. 1 in rent-controlled units and units within one-to-four-family buildings that are not owner-occupied .

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A landlord cannot charge any type of penalty or late fee to a tenant for late payment of rent until Aug.1.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many Jersey City residents are or will be experiencing substantial loss of income because of business closures, reductions in hours, or layoffs, impeding their ability to keep current on rent payments. The ordinance will help protect some residents from rent increases which will raise the cost of living to those suffering from the virus’s economic impact.

Ordinances typically must wait 20 days before taking effect, but the council adopted an accompanying resolution declaring it an emergency which will allow this wait period to be bypassed.

This means as soon as the mayor signs the ordinance into law, it will immediately take effect.

The council also unanimously passed a resolution moving the due date of property taxes from May 1 to June 1.

During the council meeting some residents thanked the council for the rent increase freeze while others, many of whom are property owners, spoke out against the measure.

Property owner Teddy Hwang, 77, said that because he is retired, he depends on his pension and rental income to subsidize his living expenses.

He said that landlords have expenses such as insurance, utility bills such as water and sewerage, as well as maintenance costs in addition to mortgages and taxes.

Ron Simoncini of the Jersey City Property Owners Association said that the measure was a “superficial gesture.”

“This is the sort of policy decision that shouldn’t be made during a pandemic,” he said. “Government shouldn’t be overreacting to short-term circumstances to pass laws that effectively abridge property rights, and are likely unconstitutional, when relief is needed throughout the market.”

Other residents said that the ordinance did not go far enough.

Melika Behrooz and Ben Figueroa advocated for the council to move toward rent cancellation in Jersey City as well as mortgage cancellation.

“The eviction moratorium is not enough, and landlords are still harassing tenants when they can’t pay,” said Behrooz. “Canceling rent is the only option.”

Figueroa called the ordinance the “bare minimum” since there are not enough protections for those most vulnerable.

Resident Brian Rans said the city needs to provide some sort of rental assistance to those in need.

“Once the eviction moratorium is over, it’s going to be very brutal, and there is going to be a lot of displacement,” he said.

Rent relief funding

In that same vein, on May 7 Solomon and a coalition of Jersey City grassroots community organizations asked Mayor Steven Fulop and a committee of city officials overseeing Jersey City’s COVID-19 Relief Fund to devote at least $2 million of the $3 million relief fund to low-income Jersey City renters, with priority to residents who have been excluded from federal aid.

The relief fund, which Fulop announced in early April is composed of private donations and aims to minimize hardships for low-income families and seniors by improving access to food and other necessities.

It is administered by local nonprofit the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation (JCEDC).

The group’s letter to the mayor and committee asks that the bulk of the city’s $3 million general-purpose relief fund be set aside for renters who earn less than half Jersey City’s average median income. (According to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, half of Jersey City’s medium income for an individual is set at $34,550 or $49,300 for a family of four.)

The proposal includes a minimum of $2 million as direct-to-tenant rental assistance, proposes explicit information-sharing safeguards to protect applicants from federal immigration authorities and landlord retaliation, and adds relief fund selection committee members from non-city-or-county-appointed community organizations with experience advocating for Jersey City’s undocumented immigrant and tenant communities.

They proposed that the financial relief to qualifying applicants be distributed by lottery to ensure aid is spread as evenly as possible before the fund is exhausted. It also advocated for applications to be in multiple languages online and by phone, as well as through established community organizers who can relay word of the fund’s availability to neighborhoods.

“Nearly a quarter of Jersey City renters are already severely cost-burdened, spending more than half their monthly income on rent— and that’s before COVID disproportionately decimated the livelihoods of low-income residents, undocumented residents, and Jersey City’s communities of color,” JCEDC letter stated

“Near half of all Jersey City renters devote more than 30 percent of every paycheck to rent,” it wrote. “Without paychecks, without savings, accruing months of back-rent debt and risking landlord harassment even under the current eviction moratorium, Jersey City renters face a terrifying future. The situation is even more dire for Jersey City residents barred from federal relief.“

Nearly a quarter of Jersey City renters are already severely cost-burdened, spending more than half their monthly income on rent.

They requested tenants who are excluded from federal relief, including undocumented immigrant residents and their U.S. citizen spouses and children, be given priority.

“The cities of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, San Jose, Seattle, and St. Paul, along with Montgomery County, MD, have all devoted significant resources specifically targeted at very low-income residents who were passed over by federal relief,” it wrote. “We are pleading with you to do the same.”

Cosigners include the Center for Undocumented Students at Saint Peter’s University; Congregation B’Nai Jacob of Jersey City; Hudson County Progressive Alliance; Fr. John Hyatt, SJ; The Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement; Jersey City Vigil for Refugees; Make the Road New Jersey; NJ-08 For Progress; Saint Aeden’s Migrant Center; the Social Justice Program at Saint Peter’s University; and Welcome Home Jersey City.

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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