The issues are important, but residents may have to take some time if they wait until Nov. 6 to read the ballot questions when they go to the voting booths next month.
Thanks to various petitions that were circulated around Hoboken this year, voters get to decide three specific issues: Should the city eliminate runoff elections? Should rent control be eliminated (temporarily for some units, permanently for the rest) when a current tenant leaves? And should the mayor/council elections be moved from May to November?
Margaret O’Brien, a senior citizen and crossing guard, recently printed the questions out so she could understand them better – but found that on her printer, the lettering was so small that it is doubtful even an eagle-eyed teenager could make them out.
“Do seniors have to find enlarging copying machines in order to read the questions?” O’Brien asked.
Public question no. 2 has incited the most debate in town. It would allow property owners to remove any building in town from rent control once a current tenant moves out – temporarily in certain cases, permanently in others. In buildings with four or fewer units, those units will never have to fall under rent control again. For other buildings, the units will go back under rent control once a new tenant is paying the new rent. So rent increases will go back to being limited, but they’ll also apply to the new, likely market-rate rent.
Voting “Yes” on the measure will institute the changes, while voting “No” will keep rent control the way it is now.
“Do seniors have to find enlarging copying machines?” – Margaret O’Brien
The other side
The city’s tenant advocates, long a powerful lobby in town, have fought against the change. But the Mile Square Taxpayers’ Association, representing landlords, petitioned for the question and would like the change to be approved with a “Yes” vote. Last week, a representative for local real estate agents weighed in.
Joe Hottendorf, president of the Liberty Board of Realtors, based in Secaucus, disputed the fears of tenant advocates who think the change will mean landlords will find ways to bully tenants out of their homes.
Hottendorf, who was born in Hoboken and once served as chairman on the rental control board, said, “There are many state statutes on the books that protect tenants. If a landlord turned the heat off or didn’t fix a broken window, the city has a code, the state has a code, [and] there are health codes [that protect this].”
Ron Simoncini, executive director of Mile Square Taxpayers Association, agreed: “There are three ways that tenants are protected from bullying by property owners: eviction law, harassment law, and habitability. The laws on the books are punishable by jail, and the severe penalties that a landlord would face [by breaking the laws] are far more discouraging than profitability.”
Hottendorf also said that back in the 1970s, former Mayor Steve Cappiello was concerned with the deterioration of Hoboken buildings and worked to create incentives for property owners to fix their properties.
Simoncini feels that existing tenants actually stand to benefit from the change.
“A landlord doesn’t have the income to update buildings when they are getting $600 a month rents,” said Simoncini. “If the building moves to allow market-rate units, a landlord wouldn’t have to replace one window; they’d replace all windows. A landlord wouldn’t update the electrical in one unit; they’d update the whole building.”
Simoncini also said he conducted a survey of real estate agents who recently rented 60 rent controlled apartments in Hoboken. He said that of the 60, 58 were from out-of-towners and the remaining two were tenants moving within the town to rent controlled units, to take advantage of the cheaper rents.
Hottendorf said, “Today, we see young couples moving in that are making six-figure salaries. If an apartment building is paying less rent [than market rate], small home owners and condo owners will wind up paying more in taxes.”
Hottendorf added that Hoboken is one of only a handful of cities in New Jersey that still has strict rent control laws. “I live in Secaucus,” he said. “There is no control and no one is being forced out [of their homes].”
Hottendorf feels that the city does a great deal to allow its residents to continue to live in Hoboken.
“What city has more subsidized or tax abated buildings to protect those that need it than Hoboken? None. Nobody beats Hoboken,” said Hottendorf.
A tenant advocacy group, Hoboken Fair Housing Association (HFHA), has complained about the way the question read, saying that it may lead voters to vote to change rent control when they really mean to keep it the same.
The question states, “Shall the city of Hoboken continue annual rental increase protections for current residents of rent controlled properties but allow property owners to negotiate rents for vacant apartments and exempt buildings with one-to-four units and condominium units from the rent leveling ordinance by adopting the proposed amendment to Chapter 155 of the Code of the City of Hoboken?”
The new interpretative statement that will go with the question says, in part, “The Amendment would exempt all units in buildings containing four or fewer rental units and all condominium units from Hoboken’s current Rent Control Ordinance beginning at the time the tenant voluntarily vacates or is evicted from the unit.” It also says, “The Amendment would also partially exempt apartment units in buildings containing more than four rental units from Hoboken’s Rent Control Ordinance.” It then goes on to elaborate on both scenarios.
Hoboken’s Rent Control Ordinance was passed in 1973 and limits rent increases to a few percent each year (depending on the Cost of Living Adjustment). There are some exceptions; for instance, landlords can apply for greater increases in certain situations, and can pass along tax and water surcharges.
The tenant advocates got a boost two weeks ago when Mayor Dawn Zimmer published a letter to the Reporter agreeing with their stance that people should vote “No” on the public question.
She wrote, “While the details are too complicated to explain in a short letter, I do not feel that the proposal contains sufficient protections to ensure that existing tenants are treated properly.”
For more on the other two public questions, see sidebar.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If runoffs are off
Among the three public questions on the Hoboken ballot in November, one question asks whether runoff elections should be abandoned. Currently, municipal elections require that the winner receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast. Thus, the way it is now, if three candidates run and each one accrues between 30 and 40 percent of the vote, a runoff is held between the top two so that the winning candidate will have amassed least 50 percent of the votes.
However, if voters approve the change, then the person with the highest percentage would win an election outright.
If Hoboken voters answer “Yes” to this question, municipal candidates will be elected in a single election rather than with runoffs a month later. Those supporting the change feel that a single election would reduce costs to the city. Those opposing it believe it will allow candidates with small bases to get elected or to run just as a “spoiler.”
On ’til November
The final ballot question would move municipal elections to November as opposed to the traditional May election date.
This will first apply next year, as there is a mayor/council-at-large election on the ballot for May of 2013. Thus, if this measure is approved, the existing council members and Mayor Dawn Zimmer will get an extra six months in office and be up for re-election in November of 2013.
The mayor and council-at-large candidates in Hoboken run for office every four years. Elections are non-partisan.
Proponents for the November date change feel that consolidating the election dates will not only save the city money, but also increase participation. Hoboken’s school board elections already have been moved to align with the November general election instead of April like previous years.
Opponents of the initiative feel that local elections could be overshadowed by bigger elections. Some of them also do not want the current office holders to gain an extra six months in office.