The decibel level of the rent control debate rose towards the rafters of the City Council chambers Wednesday as tenant and landlord advocates argued over three amendments to a 1973 law that affects approximately 8,000 units in Hoboken.
The introduction of these revisions to the Hoboken Rent Control Ordinance was tabled at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, but that didn’t stop the public from commenting on the proposal.
Mary Ondrejka, a tenant, called a provision limiting landlords’ liability for rent overcharges to two years “insulting.” Currently, if a tenant proves that a landlord has been overcharging him, he can be reimbursed for the entire length of the violation. The provision would only allow tenants to collect two years’ worth of overcharges.
“It is frustrating because we know how hard we have been working,” – Councilman Michael Russo
Tenant advocate Dan Tumpson also challenged the two-year limit Wednesday.
“The amendment harms tenants,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable and should be withdrawn.”
Another change requires landlords to give tenants a statement of their rights at the beginning of a lease or a renewal, and accompanying each rent increase. That part provoked very little comment, as did a new rule affecting how landlords apply for vacancy decontrol rent increases.
Currently, landlords must file a vacancy decontrol certificate to be eligible for a 25 percent rent increase after a tenant willingly vacates, as long as the landlord hasn’t received such an increase in the last three years. A proposed change would allow landlords to submit different types of documents than already required to prove the vacancy.
Many legal problems, including a class action suit currently in the discovery phase, stem from the city’s apparently poor record keeping about rents in the past. This often complicates a landlord’s ability to increase rents. So the proposed change would relieve some of city’s responsibility to maintain accurate records.
Council President Beth Mason pulled the proposed changes from the agenda after rent control attorney Victor Afanador, who was awarded a contract of up to $50,000 to modify the rent control ordinance, told the council that Mason’s rent control subcommittee still needs to “tweak the language.”
Afanador did not return calls to his office for comment last week.
Tenants outnumbered landlord advocates
Ron Simoncini, a spokesperson for Mile Square Taxpayers Association, a landlord group, spoke at the meeting, but was outnumbered by the tenants.
He appeared disappointed that the matter was being tabled. The subcommittee had made two small wording changes to the ordinance before it was presented, and he said, “I saw the two changes. It’s not enough to postpone a first reading.”
Simoncini also dismissed tenants’ concerns about possible conflicts of interest because some council members are landlords.
“Something comes up that affects property ownership, and you ask, should I vote?” he said. “Yes, you should vote. You should have voted a long time ago.”
But certain tenant advocates said they suspect that council members are trying to change the ordinance in order to cover up their own rent violations as landlords.
Cheryl Fallick, another tenant advocate, said to the council, “My suggestion is, if you have rental properties or relatives with rental properties, get a legal rent calculation before you vote, or don’t vote [at all].”
Suspicion in the air
Some tenants have complained that rent control reform is being driven by the MSTA, and charged that the group has gotten favorable treatment from the subcommittee. Mason and those on her subcommittee denied this.
“I know this is frustrating for tenants and landlords alike,” said Councilman Michael Russo, who sits on the subcommittee with Mason and Councilman Ravinder Bhalla. “Everybody is a little uneasy and untrusting of the other side. I can assure everyone in this room and everyone watching, the city has received multiple communications from the landlords and the tenants…when some members come up and speak about some members not doing anything, it is frustrating because we know how hard we have been working.”
The subcommittee has worked for almost two years to amend the ordinance.
Russo also said “nothing like you’re [the tenants] suggesting is going on.”
The rent control issue will be addressed once again at the Feb. 16 meeting.
Affordable housing issue, pay to play reform pushed to next meeting
Rent control wasn’t the only issue tabled at the meeting. Mayor Dawn Zimmer sent out a memo two and a half hours before the meeting containing an updated pay-to play-reform tightening rules for those who make political contributions. After discussion, it was decided the issue would be addressed at the next meeting after the council has a chance to read the proposal.
The council also decided to send a repeal of an affordable housing rule from 1998 back to a subcommittee. As noted in last week’s Reporter cover story, former Zoning Board Commissioner Mike Evers informed the council that the city has not been obeying this rule, which calls for a percentage of new projects in town to include affordable housing. Some have said that the law conflicts with state rules, and that Hoboken already has a high enough percentage of affordable housing.
Director of Community Development Brandy Forbes, in a memo to the council, wrote that a subcommittee had met to discuss the ordinance in early January, and that the city attorney decided the code is outdated. She has asked the council to repeal the code.
“The concern is that if the city keeps these ordinances in place, it is setting the zoning and planning boards, as well as the city, up for continued battles and likely litigation,” Forbes wrote.
Some council members said they received e-mails from constituents about the issue.
New field study underway
The council also voted to authorize a shared services agreement with the Hoboken Housing Authority for a study of Mama Johnson Field, an athletic field near the Jackson Street housing authority location. The field has drainage problems and needs other improvements. The council authorized Boswell Engineering to do the study for a total of $20,000.
The study will be complete at the end of March.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com