Saying they did what they believed was fair for both landlords and tenants, the members of the Bayonne City Council have opted to send the question of rent control changes to the voters in November.
“I believe our changes are fair, and therefore we should let the people decide this in November,” said Council President Terrence Ruane.
This came after about an hour of public comment from tenants in favor of keeping rent control as it was before the council changed it last November, and from landlords who said rent control was unfair to them and discouraged them from upgrading their buildings.
About 30 people came to the special meeting on Aug. 29 to raise concerns for and against rent control.
“I’ve been part of three petition drives to save rent control,” said Ed Gilligan. He said he had been involved in the election of the current members of the council during the last election cycle and was never made aware that part of their agenda was to do away with rent control.
“It seems like this decision to abolish rent control was the result of a Tammany Hall-style meetings,” he said,
He and other advocates feared a wave of uncontrolled rent hikes if rent control is eliminated.
Last November, the city council voted to adopt an ordinance that largely does away with rent control in the city, decontrolling apartments currently covered under rent control when they are vacated.
Referendum asks voters to decide
Using an alternative law to get a public vote on rent control, pro-rent control activists successfully got enough petition signatures to qualify for a ballot referendum proposing to maintain the previous rent control law over the decontrol law passed by the City Council last November that would gradually do away with rent control in Bayonne.
Robert Willard and his sister Lorma Wepner, who own a 10-unit building on West 24th Street, said rent control kept them from keeping up maintenance on their building. They said they could not recoup the cost of major repairs on the building for a long period, and because many of their tenants are senior citizens, these people could not afford the cost even when the landlords were allowed to pass along the repair costs.
Under the previous rent control ordinance, landlords doing capital improvements can pass along the cost to tenants, spread out over a number of years.
“We have not had our roof repaired in 15 years and we didn’t charge our tenants when we did,” Willard said. “But we’re retired now and we can’t afford the $20,000 to $30,000 it will cost. Many of our tenants are senior citizens, and they can’t afford the cost if we pass it along to them.”
In some cases, residents in rent control apartments are paying as little as $250 per month. Landlords are allowed to raise rents by 1.9 percent a year.
The changes made last year would have allowed existing residents to retain rent control status but would do away with rent control once residents move out. While city officials said they felt this was fair to everyone concerned, advocates for rent control said the move could encourage landlords to force people out and that by doing away with rent control, the City Council will deplete the stock of available affordable housing.
Douglas Wasama, chairman of Keep Bayonne Rent Control, said many seniors and young people cannot afford market-rate rents.
“I think it is a mistake to abolish rent control and for this council not to adopt the ordinance.”
“I believe our changes are fair, and therefore let the people decide this in November.” – Council President Terrence Ruane
Ruane said the City Council rejected an even bigger change for rent control in July 2011 after residents complained that it was too arbitrary. Under the original proposal, a landlord could have opted out of rent control simply by doing upgrades to his or her property. This would not have protected existing tenants. The second ordinance, which was approved last November, protects existing residents, but many residents feared they might face intimidation by landlords to move out.
Ruane said he believed this is fair.
Because rent control keeps many landlords from upgrading property, many buildings become run down and create a negative assessed value for neighboring homes as well. He said there is currently a glut of available rentals in the city, and that the cost for rent will rise and fall with demand.
By refusing to rescind the changes, the council allows the matter to get decided by voters in a referendum that will be on the November ballot.