Unable to sway the City Council to reject an ordinance that would gradually do away with rent control in Bayonne, a coalition of residents has decided to take matters into its own hands, seeking to let the public decide with a ballot referendum.
The council introduced an ordinance in July that would eliminate rent control on an apartment in which landlords made certain improvements, but ultimately withdrew it, then replaced it with one two weeks ago that eliminates rent control on an apartment if the current tenant moves out.
Rent control limits increases to the cost of living increase each year, usually a few percent, and imposes other rules on rents and rent hikes in the city.
City Council members said this ordinance is a good compromise.
The coalition has until Dec. 5 to get 845 signatures to allow the matter to be put on a ballot. The City Council would have 20 days to repeal the ordinance, after which the voters would get to decide if the ordinance should be retained or not.
In Hoboken earlier this month, voters chose to uphold the changes the Hoboken City Council imposed on rent control, but they were more minor changes and will not eliminate the practice.
Rent control ordinance less onerous than one from July
In July, the council tried to pass a modified rent control ordinance that would allow property owners to opt out of rent control if they made city-approved improvements to their properties. Under protest from tenants in rent controlled apartments, the city withdrew the modified ordinance. The city is required to renew its existing rent control ordinance yearly, so technically, withdrawing the ordinance left the city without rent control protection. But the new ordinance will be retroactive to July 1.
Under the new ordinance, said City Attorney Charles D’Amico, apartments would lose their rent control status only once the current residents move out.
Residents of rent controlled apartments spoke out at the public hearing two weeks ago when the ordinance was passed, objecting to the change.
Betsy Parks, who is leading the coalition to roll back the changes, said rent control is the most important protection tenants have.
Teresa Graham objected to the change because it might prevent someone in a rent controlled apartment from relocating to a larger rent controlled apartment if family circumstances change, since any vacant apartment they would move to wouldn’t be rent controlled.
Carol Madden said she feared that the change would inspire harassment from landlords trying to force people out.
Mike Massino said the ordinance protects landlords while stripping away the rights of tenants.
Richard Barba said he saw no purpose to the ordinance.
“You say it is to get landlords to improve their properties, but it seems that you’re doing this to [get rid of] rent control,” he said, noting that the city already requires property owners to maintain their properties.
Anthony Duran, a landlord with rent controlled apartments, said landlords can increase rents when they make improvements, but it takes years to recoup their money, and the system isn’t fair since it is not based on need.
“One family is paying $500 a month with heat and hot water for a four-room apartment, while a poor family in a non-rent controlled apartment is paying $900 a month,” Duran said.
He said he invested $100,000 in capital improvements on his building and it will take six years for him to get that money back through increased rent.
Rent control tied to Civil Rights movement
While rent control has its roots in the early 1900s, its modern roots come out of a rent freeze imposed nationwide during World War II. When the freeze was lifted, New York City and a few other cities enacted their own rent control laws to prevent skyrocketing rents. Contemporary rent control evolved out of the Civil Rights movement. New Jersey is one of four states that gives communities a local option to pass rent control laws. About 100 cities in the state still have some version of rent control, although it is seen as something being phased out.
While some residents object to the change the City Council voted to make, the new ordinance isn’t drastically different from the ordinance the city has had in place since the 1970s.
Landlords have already taken advantage of a loophole in local law that says that if someone moves out of an apartment and that apartment remains vacant for six months, the apartment is automatically removed from rent control.
Some landlords have been deliberately keeping apartments vacant in order to escape rent control, and this reduces the number of available apartments in the city. By doing away with the six-month wait, the ordinance would likely increase the number of available rentals citywide.
According to local real estate agents, more than 70 percent of the city’s housing stock was constructed before World War II.
“Many of the buildings are 82 to 100 years old,” one city official said. “The housing stock is deteriorating.”
Landlords who are forced by rent control to charge below market rates for housing are unlikely to do the major repairs needed to upgrade their facilities, city officials claim.
And rent control impacts other taxpayers.
Bayonne’s rents are among the lowest in Hudson County, bringing in families who had other special needs and increasing many of the costs associated with the schools. Since many landlords of the rent controlled buildings don’t upgrade them, they are paying lower taxes than they might otherwise be, and so that other taxpayers such as those who own one- and two-family homes must pay more to cover the increased school funding and other costs. Unimproved buildings also pose a higher risk for fires and increase the cost of fire protection.
City Council members said this ordinance is a good compromise, allowing landlords to get out from under the burdens imposed by rent control, yet protecting residents who still live there. Councilman Joseph Hurley agreed that the impact of rent control is felt by other taxpayers.
Councilwoman Debra Czerwienski said that the city will respond if a resident feels he or she is being harassed into moving out.
Councilwoman Agnes Gillespie said people in need have other affordable housing options, such as through the Bayonne Housing Authority.
Council President Terrence Ruane said that the city is actively seeking to develop more affordable housing units, not just luxury rentals that would be inaccessible to working people in the city.