by Jordan Coll
Health code violations. Building code issues. Illegal landlord rent increases. These are some of the issues Jersey City residents have brought to a city system meant to address municipal code infractions. Instead of getting help, locals have felt their complaints have been left unaccounted for.
The Division of Quality of Life was created over two years ago with the promise of standing up against absentee landlords, local polluters and other public disturbances that take advantage of residents, according to the city’s site.
The task force, which is led by Jake Hudnut, the city’s Municipal Prosecutor, became a division of the city’s Department of Public Safety and fleshed out the Office of Code Compliance. They are in charge of enforcing the city’s local laws and quality of life ordinances.
Last year, the Department of Public Safety requested a budget of nearly $3.3 million. This year they requested roughly $6 million, an 80 percent increase, according to the city’s fiscal budget obtained through an OPRA request.
But many residents who have spoken with The Hudson Reporter contested that a lack of response from the OCC and city officials have allowed slumlords to continue pricing out residents without legal repercussions.
“The city just looked the other way,” said Rodolfo Santos, referring to the countless violations issued by the city towards his landlord in the past four years. Santos, who grew up in Jersey City and has lived in his current apartment since 2010 with his mother, said the city’s lack of enforcement when it comes to helping tenants is a continuing legacy of city hall.
The Hudson Reporter reached out to the OCC and the Office of the Municipal Prosecutor, including the Mayor’s office, and none have provided any statements in regards to the uptick in city’s budget request or how the OCC handles their operations.
In 2019, their landlord increased the apartment’s rent from $903 to $1200, which was determined to be more than the Consumer Price Index allowed under Jersey City housing ordinance, according to email responses and documents from the Office of Landlord/Tenant Relations.
Current housing laws limit annual rent increases to no more than 4 percent, in the case of Santos’ family they would have paid over 30 percent more of their original rent. “Living in a rent control building we really didn’t know how she got away with raising the price, but at the time we couldn’t afford to do so,” said Santos.
The Hudson Reporter reached out to the Office of Landlord/Tenant Relations regarding illegal rent increases but the department declined to comment.
According to research by Rent.Com, Jersey City’s monthly average rent reached $2,195 compared to last year, which held an average of $1,684. Santos began to file complaints using SeeClickFix, a data registry which compiles resident municipal complaints to the city’s Resident Response Center.
Using the Jersey City Connect app, he filed complaints related to Housing Repair/Maintenance Concern, Tenant & Landlord Rights Issues, Health Conditions in Residential and construction violations.
“I waited two weeks to speak to an actual inspector…and I just felt hopeless waiting for any follow up.” He said the inspector would come check the claim and close the case, but the repairs still were not addressed by his landlord.
The Santos’ family filed a tenant complaint to the city’s Bureau of Rent Leveling, looking to reduce their rent.
The Rent Leveling Board concluded that the rent increase was in fact illegal and a credit of $6,608.48 would be issued for six months worth of rent, according to documents and records provided to The Hudson Reporter.
Santos started a union called the Jersey City Tenants United in 2019 with a few of his neighbors in the building, as a result of his landlord’s “inaction” and “neglect.” They have also gathered Right to Counsel, a legal provision allowing previous tenants who have been sued for eviction in housing court to have a right to a public defender.
City Councilman James Solomon who represents Jersey City said cases such as Mr. Santos’ “are all too familiar.” He voted against approving the OCC in 2020 and has advocated for the rights of tenants in the past.
He’s heard from constituents that they are facing rent increases of over $1,000 per month. “Landlords have the time, the money, the resources, and we have not put enough time and resources as a city to give tenants a fair, even playing field, ” he said. “When it comes to landlord tenant issues, as a city we are not nearly as strong as we could be and should be.”
Joe Johnson, who serves as the Policy Counsel at Jersey City’s ACLU and has worked in legal cases involving housing issues in the city, said a lack of response from municipal systems such as the OCC, is an added layer of frustration for tenants.
“It can get pretty complicated…especially when the last option for a tenant is to go to court,” said Johnson. “Landlord’s will then file an eviction notice which can hurt the tenant in applying for future housing.”
He said with the pricing market of Jersey City increasing, the last thing that municipal services such as OCC would want is for tenants to leave the city.
But the practice of landlords phasing out their tenants by failing to make necessary repairs is nothing more than deliberate and a common tactic argues Amy Albert, a managing attorney at The Waterfront Project, a non-profit legal firm based in Jersey City.
“The process of withholding rent and requesting a Habitability hearing has become less common and less effective to withhold rent since Covid-19” said Albert, referring to the legal statute Marini v. Ireland, which set legal precedence for tenants to withhold rent if they found issues related to habitability.
A resident who decided not to disclose their name due to the nature of the case against their landlord, only knew they were living in a rent control building after filing over 20 complaints. These complaints were related to health code, refusal to make repairs, illegal construction and building code violations to OCC. In going through records and court documents The Hudson Reporter found that all cases with the exception of two were dismissed by the prosecutor’s office.
The resident moved to Jersey City in 2004 and has lived in their current apartment for 10 years in Downtown Jersey City. The resident’s landlord raised their rent far more than the city housing ordinances permitted.
After filing a series of OPRA requests to the city looking for the landlord registration statement in hopes of finding which rent prices were filed on record by the landlord. “The city only provided us a section of them but nothing predating the rent raise,” according to the resident. “They told us those records didn’t exist.”
The issues with their landlord persisted. The resident reached out to Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack, who introduced a bill this year that would seal all landlord-tenant records, in order to protect tenants who are given eviction notices. He wrote a letter last year to Mayor Steven Fulop requesting that the resident’s cases be reviewed by a member of his staff.
A few days later the resident received a call from Landlord/Tenants relations acknowledging that records related to the landlord’s registration statement did in fact exist. “We lost a year of the lookback and we had to pay an additional rent for a year because of their issues,” according to the resident. “Their error cost us thousands of dollars we were owed as per the rent control statute.”
The resident said one of the failures of the OCC is the lack of notification when it comes to the status of cases issued by residents once they get picked up by the prosecutor’s office. “I have literally had to go knocking on doors filing complaints on my neighbors’ behalf…sometimes waiting weeks to respond to a single issue.”
Taras Hicks, a resident who lives in Communipaw located west of Liberty State Park, said the city “blatantly ignores and lies about inspections,” who has lived in a six family rent controlled unit for the past 10 years.
He filed an anonymous claim through SeeClickFix on issues related to plumbing and mold growing in the building, the next day his landlord called him up.
“How is it that an app meant to literally keep us anonymous is not really that anonymous,” said Hicks, who is an environmental compliance coordinator at PSE&G, a utilities company based in Jersey City.
He said the first time he filed a complaint it took OCC about two months to send out an inspector to review the building’s drainage issue, for nearly 10 years this has been an issue since he’s moved there, according to Hicks. “Something just isn’t right when a lot of people are having issues getting their complaints solved by the city,” he said.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Jordan Coll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.