After the city’s Rent Control Ordinance was amended in March, 2,300 residents signed a petition hoping the City Council would either repeal the three changes to the 1973 law or place the issue on last week’s municipal election ballot for the voters to decide.
Neither happened, and the signature-gathering may have proven to be a waste of time, because the city has rejected the petition, saying it was incomplete and past a 20-day deadline.
Now the fight is headed to court.
Rent control is a set of laws that apply to approximately 8,000 apartments in Hoboken built before 1987. They limit the amount that landlords can increase the rent each year, but can allow additional increases for capital improvements and other matters.
The changes to rent control are in effect in Hoboken.
Some said that tenants were finding out about overcharges from years ago and winning huge lawsuits. The answer could be to just charge the correct rent. However, Ron Simoncini, a spokesperson for Mile Square Taxpayers Association, a group of property owners, said it’s not that simple. He complained that the city was not keeping proper records, making it difficult for landlords to determine a legal rent.
The rent control amendments passed two months ago now limit payment of back rent to two years.
Another change, which landlords and the council believe compensates for the city’s sloppy record keeping, allows a landlord to furnish alternative documents to apply for vacancy decontrol. Vacancy decontrol lets landlords add a 25 percent rent increase every three years if a tenant vacates the unit.
A third change requires landlords to inform tenants of their rights under Hoboken’s laws and show proof the information was supplied.
The petitions, the clerks, and the law
Much to the chagrin of the petitioners, the rent control ordinance’s changes are now in effect.
The council approved the amendments unanimously on March 2 after approximately 18 months of meetings and deliberations. Mayor Dawn Zimmer signed off on March 11, and by law, 20 days later, the changes were implemented.
Any changes to rent control have proved controversial over the last 37 years, with tenant advocates often fearing that tenants would lose their protections. Often, changes approved by the City Council were eventually repealed.
Dan Tumpson, a tenant rights advocate, helped coordinate a petition effort to stop the legislation from going into effect this time around.
“We handed in a petition on March 30, within 20 days of March 11,” Tumpson said last week. “We submitted 1,442 signatures, and the clerk filed them. On April 1, [the city clerk’s office] attempted to return them to me [because there weren’t enough signatures]. Then we received a letter on April 4 saying they were rejected and they would be unfiled because they were not sufficient, and I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
Under state law, petitioners have 10 days to fix a deficient petition. Also, Tumpson said the petition has to be certified by the clerk’s office, and it can’t just be handed back to the petitioner.
The petitioners said they were told by the Hudson County Deputy Clerk that they needed 972 signatures to place the issue on the ballot. But the Hoboken City Clerk’s office said there were not enough signatures, saying they needed 1,967. In order to put a referendum on the ballot, petitioners need to gather signatures totaling 15 percent of the voters from the previous Assembly election. According to the petitioners, the numbers cited by the county and the city were different.
“We got back on the streets and got another 872 signatures,” Tumpson said. “On Monday, April 11, which was within 10 days of the earliest possible notice [of rejection] …we handed in the additional 872 signatures.”
The clerk rejected the petition again, saying there were not enough signatures, even though the supplemental submissions were within a 10-day cure period.
An attorney who represents landlords has released a statement saying the petitions were not submitted by the 20 day deadline, and that the 10 day extension period should not apply.
“The committee has not earned the right to have these petitions reviewed by the City Clerk, as the statute is definitive in its requirement for these signatures to be delivered no later than 20 days after the law is adopted,” said Charles X. Gormally. “The period has passed and the requirement has not been met.”
The city’s position is that an insufficient number of petitions can’t be remedied under the law that allows 10 days to cure the deficiencies, according to sources close to the situation.
City Attorney Mark Tabakin did not return a request for comment.
Since the rejection, the petitioners have filed a lawsuit against the city, charging that the manner in which the clerk’s office returned the petitions was incorrect because there should have been a certification process. The petitioners are being represented by the Newark-based New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center.
“The law should have been suspended,” Tumpson said. “Once we handed in petitions before that date, that continues the suspension until the certification process is completed.”
Another tenant advocate, Cheryl Fallick, also took part in the petition gathering process. “It’s very sad that the administration doesn’t seem to believe in the democratic process,” Fallick said.
Fallick believes the case goes beyond rent control, and should be on the ballot because the fight is about the democratic process, and at least 2,300 voters have expressed their desire for the measure to be placed on the ballot for a referendum.
Landlords support city decision, want more changes
Some property owners believe the changes “didn’t go far enough,” and they hope to see additional amendments.
A rent control subcommittee led by Council President Beth Mason proposed the changes that were approved. Mason has said she wanted to update the law, and believes that since both sides seemed unhappy with the changes, the committee probably reached a middle ground.
Simoncini says MSTA would support the fight in court against the petitioners. Simoncini agrees with the city’s decision, saying that since the petitioners did not have enough signatures within the 20 day period, the issue should not be placed on the ballot.
He also says he hopes the council will make additional changes to the controversial ordinance.
“We hope the rent control subcommittee will reconvene, like the council promised, to make additional changes,” he said.
Simoncini says MSTA would like to see buildings with one to four units exempted from the rent control law, as well as a change to the base year used to calculate rents.
Tenant advocates say they will vehemently oppose the exemption of one- to four-unit buildings.
The case of the petitioners isn’t the only lawsuit aimed at changes to the ordinance.
A local tenants’ rights attorney, Cathy Cardillo, believes that there was a conflict of interest in the council voting on the rent control changes, since some council members may have a direct interest in property ownership. Cardillo also supports putting the issue on the ballot.
“What better way to show [that the changes] are in the public’s interest than to put them on the ballot?” Cardillo said last week. “Let the public decide.”
Cardillo also represents Citizens for the Retention of Affordable Housing in Hoboken (CRAHH).
Her filing in Hudson County Superior Court also suggests that the recent amendments are essentially the same changes that were rejected in a 2005 referendum. However, her lawsuits are not connected with the recent petition effort.
The heated issue of rent control is sure to return to the council as well as to the courts in late May. And if petitioners get their way, it’ll also be on the ballot in the June Assembly primary races.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com