The Hoboken City Council saved its best for last on Wednesday night, when Hoboken Housing Authority Executive Director Carmelo Garcia made a last-ditch effort to gather support for a new housing project on the west end of town. However, the four council members supporting Mayor Dawn Zimmer abruptly left the meeting amidst the discussion, while the remaining four members hastily pushed through two possibly illegal votes supporting Garcia’s proposal.
The project, which Garcia said is “Sandy-proof and shovel-ready,” is a 44-unit environmentally friendly building that would be built on Housing Authority-owned land on the corner of Harrison Street and Fourth Street. It would replace the existing Andrew Jackson Gardens, which was built in the 1950s. The proposed building is the first phase of the Vision 20/20 project, which is meant to gradually replace Hoboken’s low-income housing.
Zimmer expressed concerns about the project in a letter sent to Garcia dated the day of the meeting. Garcia, along with the Authority’s financial advisor and the project’s architect, appealed to the council for support.
He said that the council has to pass a resolution in order for the project to get state and federal funding.
The resolution was not on the meeting’s agenda and was introduced as new business. Garcia said that he had assumed it would have been included after what he called a recent “positive” meeting with Zimmer, but that he felt compelled to press his case in person after receiving her letter earlier that day.
“This is class warfare at its best and racism at its worst.” – Third Ward Councilman Michael Russo
The deadline for the Authority to submit its funding application is May 7, well before the council’s next meeting on May 15. The funding for the project would come from three state and federal sources: a $7.3 million grant from a New Jersey low income housing tax credit program, $3.4 million from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a $1.9 million loan from the New Jersey Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency (HMFA). The $1.9 million would be the city’s only cost in the construction of the building.
Another resolution, relating to tax abatements for the contractors on the potential building, must be passed by May 31.
Amongst other concerns with the project, Zimmer disputed Garcia’s claim that the building could withstand a Sandy-caliber superstorm, pointing out that the building’s plan does not include a backup generator. She also said on Thursday that she has yet to see any general plan for the entire Vision 20/20 project, and that she thought it should be evaluated “holistically, and with involvement from the entire Hoboken community.”
“This isn’t something that’s going to affect just our residents who live in Housing Authority buildings; it’s something that will affect the entire town,” she said. “So far, there’s been no review of the project by the City Council or the Planning Board.”
Garcia said after the meeting that he thought Zimmer’s concerns were “petty,” and were indicative of a deeper opposition to new housing projects.
“If she’s opposed to building new low-income housing in the city of Hoboken, she should just come out and say that,” he said.
Zimmer refuted the claim, saying that she does support an overhaul of Hoboken’s housing projects, just not without doing due diligence.
“These residents are an important part of our community, but we can’t rush into something,” she said. “There’s a process. This isn’t about just one building. We have to look at the entire proposal.”
As has become customary at meetings of the bitterly-divided council, the discussion descended into chaos when Council President Peter Cunningham refused to call a vote on the resolution despite the protests of 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo and 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti. Before long, Council Vice President Jennifer Giattino and Councilman-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla exited the municipal chambers, and were soon followed by Cunningham and Councilman-at-Large David Mello.
Just before their departure, Russo accused the pro-Zimmer faction of indifference towards the residents of the city’s housing projects, saying that their refusal to vote on the resolution was “class warfare at its best, racism at its worst.”
Mello and Bhalla took issue with Russo’s comment and questioned him on the statistical racial breakdown in the projects. Russo replied that he did not have the figures immediately available, and Bhalla said he refused to vote on anything with “a gun to [his] head.”
So with the chambers half empty, Russo and Occhipinti, backed by 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, voted first to overturn Cunningham’s ruling that the resolution would not be voted on, and again to pass the resolution. Both votes took place despite the opinion of the city’s corporation counsel, Mellissa Longo, that neither was valid.
Zimmer confirmed Longo’s statements, saying that the law department would promptly inform the Housing Authority that the council didn’t approve the measure. She also lashed out at Russo’s accusations of racism and classism.
“I thought [the way the meeting ended] was extremely unfortunate, and I thought Councilman Russo’s insinuation that there was racism involved was despicable,” she said.
After the meeting closed, City Clerk James Farina said that the potentially illegal votes would not be entered into the minutes, though they were recorded in case the matter went to litigation. Asked whether it could go that far, Russo said, “absolutely.”
Mayoral hopeful Assemblyman Ruben Ramos condemned the actions of the council’s Zimmer supporters, calling their concerns about the project “dubious.”
“The residents of the Housing Authority deserve action on Phase I of Vision 20/20 now, and it looks like they will not be receiving the help they need under the current administration,” he said in a press release. “We owe it to those who are living in unsafe, substandard, minimally accessible units and buildings to show that we care about their safety and well-being.”
Firefighter pension issues resolved
The council members were able to agree on one thing – that 14 of the city’s recently-retired firefighters who have been unable to collect their pensions should get paid, no matter the method.
The council passed a resolution authorizing an immediate temporary appropriation of $700,000 for the city’s 2013 budget, meaning the firefighters could receive their retroactive pay on Friday.
The anti-Zimmer council members said that the temporary setback could have been avoided if the $700,000 had been included in the original budget, although that would have meant a rise in the tax levy during Zimmer’s re-election year.
At the last council meeting, Zimmer’s administration had submitted a resolution to pay the firefighters for an emergency bond appropriation for $1.5 million. After the city’s Business Administrator Quentin Wiest said that $700,000 would cover the cost, the council voted to approve the measure, but Zimmer subsequently vetoed it.
Then, last Thursday, a special council meeting was called to resolve the issue, but it was not attended by Castellano, Occhipinti, Mason, and Russo. They said it would not satisfy their need for public inclusion, as it was not scheduled for a regular meeting date. The four also said that the meeting was an attempt to conceal what they say are financial problems caused by the Zimmer administration.
Three council members break silence on rent control
Several months ago, a judge overturned the results of a November vote that preserved rent control in Hoboken. The matter is still in litigation. At the last few meetings, tenant advocates derided members of the council for not being outspoken about what they call a “stolen election.”
Hoboken Fair Housing Association member Cheryl Fallick told each member of the council on Wednesday they “would have an egg on their face” if the decision is overturned.
Giattino spoke out against the reversal of the election results.
“I saw the ballots that were the evidence in the case, and if they were the sole evidence that the decision was based on, then that’s disgraceful,” she said, to applause from members of the public.
Bhalla and Russo also said they’d like to look further into the issue, and both received their own rounds of applause.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org