The Hudson County chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) hosted a town hall at the Mary McCleod Bethune Center last night about Jersey City’s right to counsel proposal ahead of next week’s council meeting.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
The law would provide tenants facing eviction an attorney to represent them against their landlord in court at no cost. The city would cover the costs through development fees, a concept that has already received approval from the planning board last month.
The ordinance has been endorsed by a range of progressive groups from across the state, along with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
RTC Campaign Media and Communications Chair Julia Tache led the program.
She explained that while a right-to-counsel ordinance passed the council on first reading, a new amended version clarifies universal eligibility for those seeking service. It warranted that the ordinance needs to be reintroduced.
The development fees ordinance will also be up for first reading again due to the changes.
“It keeps the scales balanced … in a city where we’re seeing rapid gentrification,” Tache noted. She also explained there would be a new office to connect tenants with other services.
“We’re really envisioning it as a one-stop shop: Landlords across the city are breaking the law blatantly.”
The new ordinance has the same original three sponsors: Councilmen Yousef Saleh, James Solomon, and Frank “Educational” Gilmore. They are also joined by Councilman-at-Large Daniel Rivera this time around.
“I believe right to counsel levels the playing field for every day Jersey City residents,” Gilmore declared.
“Going through a court process is extremely scary. If you’re doing the right thing (as a landlord), you don’t have to worry about it. Jersey City is the highest rental market in the United States.”
Gilmore said his office gets many complaints from tenants about heating and eviction issues. He added that to make matters worse, there is no tracking of rent-controlled units by the city.
Solomon explained that the main opponents to the legislation are LeFrak, the Jersey City Property Owners Association, and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Koch brothers-funded operation for pro business causes are.
“They’re all lined up against this legislation. They should be lined up against it,” he declared.
Nonetheless, he explained the developer’s fee could net $20 million for the city, which would mean $4 million would go towards the program the way the ordinance is written.
“That could make such a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
“If we had a right to counsel, I would never have had to make Jersey City Tenants United,” said group founder Rodolfo Santos.
He explained his new building owner is trying to push everyone out by not providing necessities like heat and hot water.
“If it weren’t for Solomon, it would have been way worse. She’s sued me three times for criminal harassment. All dismissed,” added Santos, who said his landlord routinely will turn off the heat or water to retaliate against him.
He even claimed he once he had to go to court when he didn’t smile at someone in building management.
Right to Counsel JC Coalition Coordinator Isaac Jimenez said many “mom and pop” landlords treat tenants poorly, which counteracts the idea that they need to be exempted from laws that help tenants.
“I’m getting evicted by my mom and pop landlord right now,” he declared.
Jimenez said people often leave even before getting formal eviction notices when they get notices to quit.
During a panel, We Care Movement Co-Founder Rochelle Myers-Hoffman explained they became involved when women complained about living in moldy buildings that lacked amenities for years.
Local tenant attorney Anne Kassalow noted few tenants are eligible for Legal Services attorney services and it’s reflected in court.
“I was the only tenant’s attorney and there would be 100 cases scheduled there,” she said.
“New Jersey actually has good tenant protection relative to other states. Your landlord cannot evict you if they have no cause.”
Kassalow said there are certain exemptions in tenant protection laws for mom and pop landlords, but either way, people should not be intimidated.
“Go to the Jersey City housing website. You got to be like an astronaut to navigate that. Arm yourself with that information,” Myers-Hoffman said.
“You have a right to organize. There’s actually a law that protects you. Talk to your neighbors and try to work together with them.” Kassalow added.
31st Legislative District state Senate candidate Michael Griffin said from the crowd that 70 percent of Jersey City residents rent an half of them have issues, especially in Greenville.
“We need make sure that draft has teeth. It should be something that actually works.”
Tache echoed that claim, asserting that large corporations are squeezing people out of the city.
“They’re hurting the most vulnerable. It affects people of color, low-income neighborhoods,” she said.
Tache also expressed caution about the influence of LeFrak, noting they have donated to Fulop in the past and a group linked to them, Jersey City Make it Better, filmed segments with Council President Joyce Watterman last fall.
“They effectively act as slumlords,” Tache claimed.
Hudson County DSA has been campaigning for nearly a year for the law and have asked for a universal policy (no income restrictions), immediate implementation (currently it would not be enacted until January 1st, 2026), and protections for tenants with vouchers.