The Jersey City Council approved two ordinances to establish a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, as well as establishing a mechanism for developers to cover the costs.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“My concern is for small homeowners and making sure we are doing what we can to make sure they have representation also,” Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley said.
“I want to make sure we’re not duplicating services. But is the answer to fund another department to do the same thing?”
She explained that those who are poor are already eligible for representation, though added that she liked the idea as a whole.
“As a council, we’re all united, working for the people of Jersey City. We’re very, very excited to move this ordinance forward,” Ward E Councilman James Solomon, who sponsored the measures with Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh and Ward F Councilman Frank “Educational” Gilmore, said.
He argued it would help thousands of people stay in their homes.
Solomon explained that the ordinance establishing the developer’s fee funding mechanism would go to the Jersey City Planning Board, likely on March 25th, and would return to the council for final passage after that meeting.
“We’re committed to working together to ensuring … a committed full right-to-counsel ordinance,” he said.
Per state law, 80 percent of the annual development impact fee revenue must be dedicated to the production of affordable housing and would be placed in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Additionally, the final 20 percent of the annual development impact fee revenue will be used to fund Jersey City’s RTC program. A conservative estimate is that the program will average a $4 million annual budget.
Gilmore explained he wants to have something “comprehensive and fair to everyone since it’s of major need.”
Councilwoman-at-Large Amy DeGise voted in favor, but said this was an ongoing dialogue between the council and that, as is, middle class residents would be excluded.
DeGise reiterated Ridley’s issue that some legal services are already eligible for those in dire need.
“I also don’t want to duplicate services,” she added, further stated that landlords of small buildings with a few units should also be represented in court free of charge.
Watterman concurred that the council is working towards a common goal and doing their due diligence to ensure it’s done right, noting the impact on small homeowners as well.
The ordinances passed unanimously (8-0). Councilman-at-Large Daniel Rivera was absent.
City Clerk Sean Gallagher explained the developer’s fee ordinance would not go to the planning board for approval immediately, so the second reading would likely be delayed a bit.
“I’ve been dealing with housing issues in Ward A for the past 20 years. It’s horrific. Some of the vulnerable tenants in Ward A and the city need legal advice and legal representation yesterday,” Hakim Hasan said during the public portion.
“I had no heat in my building. They claimed the boiler was broken … I withheld about $400 of my rent, and I wasn’t afraid of eviction. But that’s me,” Carolyn Rummel said, indicating she had to take her landlord to court and it took months to get resolved.
Hudson County commissioner candidate Mamta Singh said RTC is needed, given the high rental costs in Jersey City.
“Jersey City is the most expensive city. Unfortunately, we have no other solution than RTC. If we are getting evicted, we should have a voice. We are losing our city,” she said.
Former Ward B council candidate Joel Brooks, a member of the North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America, said RTC would give tenants a level playing field against landlords and developers.
He explained he helped a woman who has evicted by a judge who would have been able to stay in her home had she had representation.
Katie Brennan explained she was a small landlord who is in favor of the ordinance.
“With right to counsel the people of Jersey City can have a fighting chance … against landlords: Landlords like me have too much power.”
Hudson DSA Organizer Julia Tache explained she has been working on the RTC campaign and they would prefer universal coverage as opposed to income thresholds.
“Housing is a human right,” she declared.
Carol Sainthilaire, of the non-profit Waterfront Project, said they are representing 1,000 tenants so far this year and that RTC would be helpful.
“The status quo leaves thousands unrepresented. Right to counsel is vital to Jersey City,” she stated.
“Much of the city council is struggling to understand the housing crisis … Tenants’ rights need to be universal,” noted Hudson County DSA Co-Chair Isaac Jimenez.
He also also denounced the idea of providing lawyers to landlords.
Hudson County DSA activist Jake Ephros chimed in that since he makes $65,000 a year, he would also not qualify.
“It leaves right to counsel in threat of being scaled back,” he argued.
“We are not against the RTC. The question is how we can get it done. We need to review it. Some of you brought out some good ideas,” Watterman said.
“Our hands was tied based on a certain time based on the law,” she added about enforcing rent control.
The Hudson County DSA had demonstrated outside City Hall prior to the meeting in favor of affordable housing and RTC.