Jersey City tenants, housing organizations paint stark picture of landlord abuses

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Threats of eviction, attorneys knocking on doors, notice of rent increases with just a single day’s notice and tenants’ rent being raised by more than 25 percent is not unusual in Jersey City, according to tenants who spoke at a public forum earlier today.

Jersey City Council members James Solomon and Joyce Watterman, who both co-chair the city council’s special committee for new rent control legislation, listening to testimony from local tenants earlier today.

By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View

It was a stark portrayal of tenant conditions in parts of Jersey City during a two-hour hearing held by the special committee of the Jersey City Council on new rent control legislation, formed in May to put forth a comprehensive, city-wide affordable housing plan.

The committee, headed by co-chairs/Council members James Solomon and Joyce Watterman, heard testimony today in order to “hear their thoughts and experiences on the current law and what can be changed about it,” Solomon said.

And there were no shortage of stories shared, including tales of landlords overcharging rent, ignoring state and city housing laws, and even using threats and intimidation against tenants who bring up issues with their units.

At times, the session got so emotional that certain residents were nearly brought to tears describing their experiences.

“My landlord’s a nasty man,” said Michael McNamara, a Pavonia Avenue resident, and is “in retaliation [mode] at all times if you disagree with him about anything.”

Greenville Avenue resident, Nop Smerasuta, said his landlord would shut the water off without notice. They later went to court, where his landlord falsely claimed Smerasuta was turning utilities off himself, and that he would leave “piles of garbage” outside.

“He goes unchecked, he just lies. He told the court I had 17 pets in my apartment. I don’t have any pets. You can’t just go in and lie like that,” he added.

The stories were varied, but they all seemed to have one thing in common: no one knew that their apartments were subject to rent control and were paying hundreds of dollars more than they should have on a monthly basis

Additionally, Samantha Diop, a West Side Avenue resident who moved to Jersey City from New York, said her landlord had been “charging me $532 more than what they were telling (the state) that I was paying … I didn’t even know my apartment was rent controlled.”

“I even had a broker find the apartment for me… [and] the broker didn’t even know. He told me the landlord didn’t even tell him,” she added.

These stories are part of “a growing eviction crisis in Hudson County, and rent control tenants in particular are facing a relentless assault on their affordable housing,” stated The Waterfront Project Executive Director Rebecca Symes.

The agency serves as a free legal center in Hudson County which provides counseling and legal representation to “resist the forces of gentrification that displace low income people from their communities,” according to their website.

As it stands now, Jersey City’s rent control ordinance caps annual rent increases using a formula calculated with inflation in mind, with the aim of limiting increases to 4 percent.

At the moment, more than 70 percent of the city’s residents are renters, officials said.

The law regulates dwellings built before 1984 with more than four residential units. but does have some exemptions, including dwellings with four or less housing spaces and low rent public housing developments, among others.

An ordinance approved for introduction last week would eliminate an exemption for “newly constructed dwellings with 25 or more dwelling units located within a redevelopment area,” however, many of those developments are still protected by a state law that prohibits rent control on any newly constructed properties for 30 years.

Today’s hearing was the first of several scheduled for upcoming weeks, where the committee will hear testimony from landlords and management companies, as well as law and policy experts.

Symes, during her testimony, made several suggestions the city could do to bolster protections, for instance, making sure tenants know if their properties are subject to rent control.

She suggested the ordinance be changed to require all “leases and renewals … contain mandatory statutory language alerting the tenant that the apartment is subject to rent control and include contact info for the office of landlord-tenant relations.”

“This is a simple change … and it will have a major impact on tenants, and will create a widespread knowledge of rent control,” she said.

She credited the city with having strong measures in certain areas, but noted that many times landlords get away with ignoring laws because they do not file annual rent registrations.

“These things must carry more severe penalties or you will continue to see what we have seen which is rampant non-compliance,” Symes said. “Non-compliance robs not only the tenants of the right to assert their rights, but of government agencies to enforce the rent control ordinance.”

And ultimately, she said, tenants often have few options to bring cause of action against their landlords.

The next step for the committee is to formulate potential changes based on testimony for each hearing.

Today’s suggestions included bolstering the building’s department, increasing communication between the city and tenants – all “to ensure that none of the tenants ever experience that harassment again,” Solomon said.

Council President Rolando Lavarro, meanwhile, even said abusive landlords should face criminal penalties.

“Criminal penalties should be available, because for me these are crimes – jail time for people who are truly abusing people in these situations,” he exclaimed.

“There are good landlords out there, but clearly there are those who abuse the system. And we should take a very hard stance on that.”

 

Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_

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