The Jersey City Council heard more protests from Portside Towers residents over steep rent increases and passed a special resolution to have a closed session hearing on the matter.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“Without that filing, there is no exemption from rent control … I cannot afford the living costs. I fear for my safety,” Tara Smythe, who lives at 70 Greene St., said during the public portion of last night’s meeting, the second meeting in a row where such concerns were expressed.
Smythe said the building has had three major floods in three years, which ended up being a detriment in her professional life.
Another Portside tenant, Michael Shanahan, said he’s lived in the building for 20 years.
“They always offered me just a one-year lease. Each year, Equity would send me an email on Christmas eve about the rent increase,” he said.
“Jersey City has the highest rents in the United States. Things might be changing if Jersey City enforces it laws which have been on the books for many years.”
Anna Davies echoed a similar sentiment during her remarks at the podium.
“Portside Towers should be subject to Rent control. Rent increases are egregious. Ignorance of the law is not immunity from the law,” Anna Davies said, noting she had a steep rent increase.
Kevin Weller says the law on the books has been clear since it was adopted via ordinance in 1987, yet it never seems to get enforced.
He also noted that Council President Joyce Watterman, Ward E Councilman James Solomon, and Councilman-at-Large Daniel Rivera had been receptive about discussing the topic previously, but said it was time for the council to investigate “unlawful acts.”
“Is there any way we can get answers to these tenants today? Is there any information you can give us or give them?” Rivera asked.
“This is an ongoing process. They do need some type of answers,” Watterman added.
“There is ongoing litigation. It is before the rent leveling board,” Jersey City First Assistant Corporation Counsel Brittany Murray said.
Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh asked if they could hold a hearing to investigate.
“That’s its own process,” Murray replied.
“There’s going to be irreparable harm done to the tenants. I’m scared Jersey City is going to get it wrong. I feel like the law is clearly on our side. There was no filing so there should be no exemption,” he said to applause. “I really think the city council needs to act.”
“Do we know when a decision is going to come? To leave people in limbo playing a waiting game can cause hardship. We have the highest rent in the nation,” Ward F Councilman Frank “Educational” Gilmore noted before Murray advised the council to not comment on pending litigation.
Gilmore asked for a time frame, to which Murray said that could be addressed in closed session. Solomon then asked when the rent control board meets next, to which Murray said she didn’t have the date off hand.
“If decisions are being made egregiously, we have the power and ability to make sure the administration is actively interpreting the law. We can see if there’s a systemic problem,” Solomon stated.
“We have a landslide of concerns with these buildings. There are safety issues that are going we have to highlight,” Rivera said, acknowledging that the nature of litigation limits conversation.
“What liability does the city face if it has knowledge of what is happening?” Saleh questioned.
“We can discuss that more in a closed session,” Murray answered, indicating that many decisions of this variety get appealed.
“Is there a statute of limitations on the appeal?” Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey asked, to which Murray said appeals typically occur within 45 days of the decision.
“We’re going to have to schedule a closed session to get something resolved,” Watterman said.
City Clerk Sean Gallagher said that could be scheduled for their next meeting.
During further public comment, Steve Coco said landlords illegally exploit and abuse their tenants across Jersey City.
Describing himself as a local active member of the Hudson County Democratic Socialists of America, he has heard many stories of steep increases and neglect.
“Call after call to the management company, help never comes. The management company forced the man out of his home due to negligence. Landlords and management companies benefit when they can fore out rent control stabilized tenants,” Coco said.
“Which side are you on? Are you on the side of Jersey City tenants worn down by the anxiety of eviction?”
Rita Boetelho asserted that some residents are going homeless as they wait for the council to address this problem.
“Councilman Solomon’s recommendation for a rent control database has not come to fruition. Someone is shutting down shining a light on which buildings are currently subject to … strengthening enforcement of rent control,” said Alexandra Kaam.
“She [Division of Housing Preservation Director Dinah Hendon] is willing to overlook required statutory documentation because she supposedly believes that it is sufficient that an owner might have had the intention to file a claim for exemption from rent control. It seems to me that she is operating under the auspices of something that seems to be far more nefarious.”
Michele Hirsch also claimed that the city benefits from illegal rent increases and that the city caused the issues at Portside Towers.
A special resolution to schedule the closed session was added to the agenda after the speakers concluded.
“They’re vulture capitalists and they’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone. I don’t know the many countless buildings in which this is happening, but I plan to work with my council colleagues … to protect the people of Jersey City said,” Saleh added.
The special resolution passed unanimously (7-0), with Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley and Councilwoman-at-Large Amy DeGise absent.