With a unanimous vote, the Jersey City Council adopted an ordinance to continue the city’s rent freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health emergency.
The ordinance continues a rent-increase freeze on certain rental units, except owner-occupied homes with four or less rental units. It also prohibits landlords from imposing a penalty or collecting a fee for late payment of rent.
Begging to differ
“Where is my tax freeze? …am I a lesser citizen… compared to a tenant?” questioned resident Yvonne Balcer. “This is nothing but socialism to its core,” she said calling the rent freeze ordinance “immoral”, “evil,” and “absolutely wrong.”
“I am tired of one group getting a free ride, and everybody else paying through the nose,” she added.
James Ambrosio, a landlord for over 35 years, said, “Continuing this moratorium on rent increases is detrimental to the needs on small landlords like myself. Placing the burden on the landlords to maintain the level of service they provided pre-pandemic while denying them the right to raise the rents is unfair.”
He noted that none of his expenses have decreased during the pandemic, including utilities and property taxes, and some expenses have increased, such as maintenance and sanitizing of buildings.
“If this moratorium is allowed to continue, I believe landlords should be reimbursed by the city for the rent increases that are not being given to the tenants because of this moratorium,” he said.
Jersey City Property Owners Association Executive Director Ron Simoncini said no research was done on who needs the relief, noting that some people on unemployment “actually got greater benefit from being on unemployment than they got when they worked.”
“There is no question that this is a horrific economic crisis, but we shouldn’t be making it worse by piling on debt into the city and reducing property values and the capacity of those property owners to provide the services that the resident needs,” he said. “That just makes it worse.”
He cited a survey by the Liberty Board of Realtors that found many “people are walking out of their homes in uniform to go drive a bus, and they’re not paying their rent because they know that there’s no threat of eviction.”
He asked the council to table the measure until they could conduct more research to see if the ordinance was helping those most in need.
Prior to the virtual council meeting on March 10, The Jersey City Property Owners Association sent a letter to the council urging them to reconsider the ordinance.
“As we have long argued, we understand that some people need relief and help, and we support efforts to provide funds to bridge them out of the pandemic. However, freezing the market has had devastating effects that are only growing,” states the March 8 letter.
It further argues that they believe the economic reality has changed since May when the ordinance was first adopted and no longer justifies the freeze.
The letter cites the lower state unemployment rate, which has decreased from 16.8 percent in June to the current 7.6 percent, increases in property owners operating costs to keep living environments sterile, and increased vacancy rates which they estimate at 15 percent.
Those in favor…
Other speakers asked the council to maintain the moratorium on rent increases
“So many people have been struggling during this pandemic with work drying up,” said resident Elena Little. “To abandon our most vulnerable residents at this time and exacerbate this problem would be a moral failure of the city.”
“We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century public health crisis and massive economic crisis,” said resident Ryan Heisinger, noting that the ordinance is not yet over, and neighbors are struggling.
“This is a lifeline for them,” he said.
“Throwing people to the wolves just as things are starting to improve is not only unwise, its cruel,” he said of the alternative, adding that while unemployment has decreased, those who found jobs may not yet have enough money saved up to pay back rent.
Unanimous council support
The council adopted the rent freeze extension with 6-0 vote. Council members Joyce Watterman, Jermaine Robinson, and Denise Ridley were absent.
“While there might not have been an official study or survey done, anecdotally, based on a number of calls I’ve received into my office in the last year, there is a need for this, and there is still a need for this,” said Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey.
Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano said he’d support the measure for a final time.
“This has to end,” he said. “ I mean, I’ll vote for it this time, but that’s it… We have to start considering the people that own homes here and start helping other people in this city also…It has come to the point where it’s out of hand. I’m getting calls from people who rented apartments, and they stayed there eight or nine months, and they’re splitting, and they owe eight or nine months rent.”
Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh said he sympathized with homeowners, but the pandemic is ongoing.
“We can help the tenants, and we should,” he said. “I’ve experienced a lot of people calling about this issue…we need this right now.”
Ward E Councilman James Solomon said eviction cases are up, and many constituents are in financial distress, citing the number of applications sent in for the city’s rent relief program.
“Our primary responsibility is to keep people in their homes during a pandemic,” he said.
Councilman at-Large Rolando Lavarro echoed his colleague’s statements, noting that the city is “still not out of the woods” and “people are in dire straits.”