When the City Council took a brief recess from its Wednesday night meeting, City Councilman Stephen Hudock was so happy that he nearly danced out of the room. After six months of introducing and re-introducing legislation to amend the city's rent control ordinance, the council had finally adopted his fourth - and dramatically pared down - offering. The ordinance, which passed unanimously, will alter city law to make it crystal clear that the residents of Clock Towers, a downtown residential apartment complex, will come under rent control if their building is sold in the near future as expected. The city's current rent control law, first adopted in 1973, limits rent increases to a few percentage points per year. Since Clock Towers was specially constructed for low and moderate-income tenants, its rents have been regulated by the federal government and not subject to the 1973 ordinance. But the government recently announced that it would no longer regulate the rents in Clock Towers and a dozen other similar "project-based" properties in town - spurring fears that the residents might face higher rents after the building's sale. "I feel great," Hudock said after the vote, shuffling out of the council chambers with a big smile. "My wife is probably happiest of all because she does not have to hear me talk about this over and over again anymore. This came at the right time because Clock Towers is about to be sold. And from the beginning my primary intent was to protect the tenants there." But tenant advocates are not happy about the new law. They have said for some time that even though it's meant to protect some people, it could hurt others. However, Wednesday night, with the city on the verge of processing the paperwork related to the sale of Clock Towers, the activists relented. "Bottom line - the amendments are still flawed," said tenant activist Daniel Tumpson during the meeting. "However, at least the main issue of clarifying that the rent is subject to rent control when it comes off pre-emptive regulation has been addressed." Many revisions
Though that was always Hudock's stated objective, protecting the tenants of Clock Towers was not the only thing that the numerous drafts of his offered legislation did. An early version of the Hudock legislation also sought to allow landlords in owner occupied two family homes and in parts of other project-based buildings to raise the rents to market levels after their current tenants left. Although that legislation ultimately passed - after a handful of revisions - Hudock was forced to repeal his own measure in April when activists gathered more than 1,800 signatures opposing it. They argued that the measure would slash the city's already limited affordable housing stock and could lead to situations where landlords pressured tenants to move so that they could raise the rents. If Hudock had not taken the steps necessary to repeal it, the activists had enough signatures to force a special election on the issue. Undaunted, Hudock returned with a new rent control ordinance at the next meeting in May that he said simply protected Clock Towers residents. But once again tenants' rights activists, led by Daniel Tumpson and Annette Illing, cried foul. They pointed to a "virus" buried in the legislation that they said could lead to the undoing of rent control entirely. The brunt of their criticism centered on a technical change in the definition of the base rent. Due to the changes, they argued that a landlord could sidestep the rent control ordinance by leasing an apartment to a tenant with a government-subsidized voucher. The rents of vouchered tenants are not subject to rent control. They are set by the government that issues the vouchers, so they can exceed the amount the landlord could collect from a non-vouchered tenant under rent control. The activists argued that Hudock's changes would allow the landlord to rent a $600 apartment to a vouchered tenant at, for example, $900, and then turn around and rent the apartment to a non-vouchered resident for that same $900 when the vouchered tenant leaves. The problem, they argued, was that under the new definition of a base rent, the rent becomes whatever the last tenant was paying regardless of whether they were paying their rent with the help of a government subsidized voucher. For weeks, Hudock, Tumpson, Illing and city lawyers struggled over the minutest details of the legislation. The activists said that the newest legislation still has flaws, but that these flaws could be rendered harmless if city officials were vigilant about contacting other governments that administer voucher programs and notifying them of the city's rent control law and the city's interest in protecting its affordable housing stock. That might prevent those governments from allowing vouchered tenants to pay more than the base rent allows for individual apartments and it might prevent them from signing separate side agreements that allow them to circumvent the law altogether, they said. (The Applied Companies signed an agreement with the state last year that allows them to increase rents above the limit allowed by rent control at nine of the properties they own in exchange for a guarantee that 20 percent of them would always be available to low income tenants.) "City Attorney Linda Sabat assured us that our newly clarified rent control law will be communicated to the state and federal governments and that all future agreements to bypass rent control and decontrol rents will be fought in the courts if necessary," said Tumpson. "I would like to believe her. I therefore ask the council to make sure that this is done. A resolution to that effect should be passed and the mayor should communicate it to all potentially pre-emptory agencies." Hudock assured the crowd of 60 residents that he and other city officials were intent on talking with their counterparts in other governments. As evidence, he handed out a copy of a resolution that State Assemblyman Rudy Garcia (D-33rd Dist.) introduced recently urging Congress to take action that will ensure that tenants continue to pay favorable rental rates even after federal oversight ends. Should've known better
During the meeting, Councilman Dave Roberts, who introduced a resolution similar to the one that passed Wednesday in January, chastised Hudock for not working more closely with the activists from the beginning. "A lot of this could have been avoided," Roberts said, referring to the near-constant introduction and repeal of rent control ordinances that have filled up the city council agenda for the last six months. "The City Council should not have to be threatened by a public referendum in order to do what is best for the residents of this city." But afterward, Hudock said that although it was "a long road," much of the problem stemmed from the fact that he had to have an ordinance under consideration by the council to protect the residents of Clock Towers. "I was not ready to gamble with those people's lives and livelihoods," said Hudock during debate before the vote. "I did not want to wait and negotiate these things that could take months. I took a lot of flack for that. But that's fine. I can take it ... The flaws will be addressed, but today we are voting on an ordinance that will protect the people of Clock Towers." One activist who came to several meetings on the subject thanked the council for bending to the public's concerns after so much time. "I'm pleased - perhaps a little surprised - to hear that the objectionable parts have been removed," said Cheryl Fallick during the meeting. "Although there are still concerns, I am glad to be here tonight to thank the council." Other activists were less charitable. "Small holes can sink ships," warned Greg Ribot. "A lot can slip through one small loophole." Mayor's aide gets $20,000 raise
Nobody on the City Council had a problem with most of the pay raise schedule that Mayor Anthony Russo's administration proposed at Wednesday night's council meeting. It included an already-negotiated raise of 3.75 percent for hundreds of city employees who are represented by unions, and modest 3.75 percent increases for dozens of others including city council members, the mayor and the city clerk. But to City Councilmen Dave Roberts, Anthony Soares and Ruben Ramos Jr., one raise stood out. The mayor's "confidential aide," Robert Crespo, was going to see his salary jump from $46,487 to $66,000 - an increase of 42 percent for the year 2000. According to the schedule, it would jump again in 2001 to $70,000, an additional six percent. Crespo started in 1993 at $27,000. "The problem here is that there are far too many parts of this ordinance where raises go beyond three, four or even five percent," said Roberts. "When we have this much revenue, should we be giving out these raises to a handful of city workers, or should we invest in our communities' future? If it is as a result of development that we have this cash benefit, than let's not give it all away in a salary increase." As soon as Roberts was finished, Soares chimed in. "Going from $46,000 to $70,000 is unheard of unless someone moves into a new job title," he said. Other city council members defended the raise by pointing out that Crespo was going to increase his duties by helping out the Office of Hispanic Affairs. Currently, Tom Olivieri, who does tenant/landlord advocacy in City Hall, is handling Hispanic affairs duties. He will continue in that capacity, but Crespo will pick up additional duties from that office. "[Soares] fails to mention that there are two positions that are being held by one person," said Councilman Stephen Hudock at the meeting. Crespo said last week, "The mayor has been working hard for the Hispanic community for seven years. But still, some people don't know enough about what goes on in the city. There are services being [underutilized]." Crespo said after the meeting that he would like to coordinate festivals, start up youth-oriented activities such as dominoes clubs, organize field trips to museums such as the Puerto Rican museum and possibly develop a city newsletter written for Spanish speakers. Crespo said the criticism didn't bother him. "I work very hard," he said of his duties as the mayor's confidential aide. "I work weekends and a lot of nights. I'm dealing with serious things too, like people's housing concerns, so when people stop me on the street and say they are having a problem, I don't say, 'I'm sorry; my working hours are over.' It's not easy to work for Mayor Anthony Russo. You better produce or you are out." Crespo's salary will not lag that far behind Russo's. The mayor will earn $87,000 this year. In the preliminary caucus meeting before regular business began, Business Administrator George Crimmins defended the raise by pointing out that Crespo's salary would not be out of line with the salaries of his peers who work in other municipalities in Hudson County. "This salary is commensurate with other positions in Hudson County," he argued. "In West New York, a confidential aide to the mayor earns $83,000. They also have a secretary to the mayor that earns $44,000." Besides working in City Hall, Crespo has volunteered for seven years as a member of the city's Board of Education. Recently, he was an outspoken advocate of the board's school uniform policy, which just passed. Crespo is one of Russo's strongest supporters and has been involved in his political campaigns. He took some flack in 1997 for calling the city's crossing guards into his City Hall office to complain that they had not been at the mayor's political rally for Gov. Christie Whitman the night before. Roberts, Soares and their ally on the council, Ruben Ramos Jr., were outmanned. The ordinance passed 6-3. Close vote for council president
In a close vote, City Council President Nellie Moyeno was re-elected to serve another one-year term as chief of the city's part-time legislative body. The position pays more than $19,000, or almost $1,500 more than the other members of the City Council receive. Moyeno did face a challenger for the spot. Third Ward Councilwoman Roseanne Andreula was nominated by Anthony Soares, a foe of Mayor Anthony Russo. Andreula is the longest-serving member of the council, but like Moyeno, she tends to side with the mayor and against Soares and his allies on the council. In a speech before the vote, Soares did his best to argue that the nomination of Andreula was based on his positive impression of her, not a negative one of Moyeno's performance. "Witnessing the job you have done as citizen and a council member, I think you have done a darn good job," Soares told Moyeno. "There are times I go a little nuts, but I also see that you can put people in line. However, I have seen that there are other people who have been on this council for a long time and it might be good to give them an opportunity." The nomination produced a pair of tense moments during the meeting, since council members were only allowed to vote once for a president. The 60-person audience first wondered if Andreula would vote for herself, which she did as she flashed a nothing-personal smile at Moyeno. Then the question was whether any of the other five pro-Russo council members would break away from Moyeno. One defection on the nine-member council would have installed Andreula, since Soares and his allies Ruben Ramos Jr. and Dave Roberts were virtually assured of voting for her, given Soares' nomination. But no one defected. Moyeno was re-elected 5-4. Later, 2nd Ward Councilman Richard Del Boccio, the council vice president, was also re-elected 6-3, turning back a challenge from 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr.