The Jersey City Rent Leveling Board heard the highly anticipated cases for Portside Towers after about six months of tenants airing their grievances at city council meetings.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“I know this is huge. We volunteer. We don’t get paid for this. Please be civil,” asked Board Chair Albert Cupo, acknowledging that around 70 people, mostly tenants at the two Portside buildings, were in attendance.
Union City Rent Leveling Board attorney Neil Marotta, who successfully represented them in a case heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court, was hired as counsel for the tenants of Portside Towers East and West at 155 Warren St. and 100 Washington St., respectively.
“It’s not always easy to get people together on a timely basis. It’s not that we didn’t try to resolve the matter,” Marotta said about the negotiations with Equity Residential, who owns the two buildings.
“My client did take care great care to put together what was thought of as a reasonable offer. We just didn’t get there,” Equity attorney Derek Reed, a partner at the Newark-based law firm Ehrlich, Petriello, Gudin, Plaza & Reed, added.
Cupo noted that the full board was not present, but both sides still agreed to proceed forward. He also noted they weren’t expecting to make a decision on Wednesday evening.
Hudson County Commissioner Chair Anthony Romano (D-5), who is up for re-election in the June 6th primary, spoke on behalf of the Portside residents.
“I’m glad the attorneys for both sides are negotiating. There’s been a failure to meet a statutory filing requirement,” he began.
“In the absence of any clear evidence, they want to know why a city would grant rent control exemption. It has to be a fair and equitable situation. The most important thing is to negotiate and get some guidance from this board.”
Cupo noted the two buildings were on the agenda as two different cases and asked if they wanted to combine them.
“I think we’ll have to keep them separate,” Marotta said.
“We pretty much know how this runs. We’re going to keep this practical,” added Portside Towers East Tenants Association President Kevin Weller, who also testified at length at the roughly two-hour hearing.
He indicated that former Landlord/Tenant Relations Office Director Dinah Hendon said on the record that Equity did not apply for an exemption, yet they continue to act like they have. He estimated they have overcharged tenants about $135 million overall.
“In court, we would seek treble damages amounting to $400 million. We will keep an open mind to negotiation. The purpose of today … is to deal with the determination of the rent control exemption,” Weller explained.
He stated that he had a 35 percent rent increase, despite initially being promised a rent freeze by building management after he paid for an improvement. When they reneged on their promise, it galvanized him into action.
Marrota explained that New Jersey has a law on the books encouraging development where developers can claim exemption from rent control.
“That was not done by the owner in a timely manner. It was not done by the original owner at all. They have no right to make this claim,” he declared.
Marotta said the previous owner bought the building at a sheriff’s sale and then tried to file an exemption. Only the builder could file a rent control exemption and they did not, the attorney argued.
“An addendum claiming exemption does not make it true,” Weller said, with Marotta noting multiple problems with their compliance paperwork.
“100 (Warren) did not file within 30 days. They cannot claim the exemption. For 155, there is no letter claim of exemption at all. Ms. Hendon says it’s original occupancy. The legislature has other language. It was an attempt to bootstrap what was done with one building was done with another,” Marotta pointed out.
Weller noted that they’re trying to use the same paperwork to claim an exemption for both buildings.
“Everything about the letter didn’t fit. The letter is meaningless,” he declared.
Weller said he spoke to Hendon in May 2022, when she first claimed the properties were not exempt.
“Then this massaging happened. Every record is perhaps a clerical error. It just doesn’t read right,” he argued.
During his remarks to the board, Reed noted the initial decision in their favor is on appeal by the tenants and the burden is on them to prove it was arbitrary and capricious.
“Certain testimony … maybe should be excluded, such as conversations he [Weller] had with Dinah Hendon. You ever play the game of telephone? By the time it gets back to you, it’s completely different,” he said, arguing that hearsay shouldn’t be considered.
Reed argued both buildings are exempt from rent control, noting that Hendon reviewed the documents and ruled on their side, reinforcing a prior decision from the city.
Furthermore, Reed said while the 155 Washington St. rent exemption request wasn’t found, it is highly likely it was sent to the wrong city office and lost.
He also acknowledged certain Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests did not yield some relevant documents, but asserted that didn’t necessarily prove anything since they’re at least 30 years old.
“155 was owned by the same owner. These towers were managed as one development. The city was aware this was managed as one development. The bureau found they were indeed exempt,” he said, citing construction and zoning documents.
” … The city was aware of the construction of the two towers, Portside Towers, 100 Warren [St.] and 155 Washington [St.], which are on the same tax block and lot and part of the same development plan, owned and managed by the same owner,” Reed added, citing the decision being appealed.
In his rebuttal, Marotta said while hearsay may not be admissible in court proceedings, it is still admissible in a rent leveling board hearing.
“They did not do what they were required to do. His client didn’t build it. It had to be done by the prior owner. The bureau circumvented the statute,” he asserted.
“The Dinah Hendon quotes are in the record… that she signed and certified. The owner at the time didn’t apply for an exemption. She said in emails 100 Warren Street is subject to rent control,” added Weller.
In a twist fit for a primetime TV sitcom, Weller revealed that Hendon actually taught a class on rent control and he was in fact one of her students – his only college credits in the legal field.
He also said the New Jersey law explains that each building is always treated individually in rent control exemptions, unlike Equity’s attempt to put both on the same exemption.
“There were residents who lost their apartments?” Commissioner Sullivan Johnson III asked.
“Yes!” several in the crowd exclaimed, raising their hands.
Around this time, Cupo called for counsel from both sides to meet before the board attempted to make any decisions.
“This is complex. This is way beyond our comprehension. We’re looking for a baseline to worth with to resolve the issue,” he explained
Reed asked for a conference with Board Counsel Thomas Slattery and Marotta, so a roughly 10-minute recess was taken.
With no resolution reached, Cupo called for a motion to adjourn, with the next meeting scheduled for on or about June 15th, to the dismay of a few crowd members who demanded an explanation.
Cupo said that the board wanted to absorb everything they heard and didn’t want to make a decision in haste.
If the date holds, the Jersey City Council will vote on second reading on their right to counsel ordinances on Wednesday, June 14th and then the rent leveling board will be heard the next day, Thursday, June 15th.
Chief News Correspondent John Heinis contributed to this report.