City rent-control activists believe that this is their year, when they will bring back to Bayonne rent control as it existed in the city for nearly 40 years. Starting with a successful petition campaign in the spring that got the referendum placed on the Nov. 4 ballot, and then buoyed by an administration sympathetic to the cause, the advocates believe they will be able to reverse the result of two years ago, when a similar measure was defeated by 141 votes out of 13,789 cast.
“We’re very confident,” said Ed Gilligan, president of the Bayonne Tenants Organization. “With the help of Mayor Davis and the support of the city council, and based on how close the effort was last time.”
“I don’t utilize rent control, but I empathize with the people who need it,” said Councilman Gary La Pelusa. “Some people have trouble making ends meet.”
Gilligan feels the measure might have passed in November two years ago had it not been for the impact of Hurricane Sandy. The storm struck hard in the First Ward, with many families forced to leave their homes and move out of town temporarily. Since the question was not on out-of-town ballots, where many voted, Gilligan said the effort was hit hard.
But a public relations professional involved in the anti-rent control effort in Bayonne two years ago, disagrees.
Ron Simoncini, founder of Axiom Communications in Secaucus, believes that the proponents of vacancy decontrol, where unregulated rent increases are allowed when a person moves, would have won by a wider margin if not for Sandy.
He said that individuals who most likely evacuated during were those who are the most mobile, and more likely to be in favor of vacancy decontrol rather than rent control.
Two years ago was a learning experience for the fledgling rent control supporters; they’ve taken away a lot of lessons from the previous campaign.
This time, an explanatory statement has been included on voting machines, and on the ballots, something that was not in place last time.
Gilligan said his group will work harder to get the ballot measure passed. But beyond pledging that more letters to the editor would be written, he would not elaborate on what those additional efforts would be.
“The BTO is discussing what to do,” La Pelusa said. “How they’ll promote it.”
La Pelusa did say that a strong volunteer drive has been launched, signing up “hundreds” to promote their cause.
Gilligan blamed the defeat two years ago on an unidentifiable, silent opposition which he said shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to win.
“They spent $100,000 campaigning against us,” he said. “It was never clear who they were. Some landlords are pro-rent control. But the people who campaigned against us last time were primarily out-of-town developers, not in-town landlords.”
Simoncini said he knows who campaigned against rent control in 2012.
“It was a group of property owners,” he said. “Realtors also had a program that we were aware of and we supported. You’ll see organized opposition from the Realtors or apartment owners, or both, again.”
La Pelusa also said that big money was behind the opposition two years ago, and he said some of their actions were reprehensible.
“It’s disgusting what Realtor groups tried to do last time,” he said. “[They had ads of] of people working in the shadows and pictures of drugs. And we've not had that in Bayonne in rent control for 40 years.”
Simoncini contends what’s reprehensible is what he sees as an effort by rent-control advocates to seize clout within the city.
“I see this movement as an effort to gain political power against the interests of the people,” he said. “And I think it’s deplorable.”
Gilligan feels the time is right now for the change, with many of the supporters of the Davis campaign also rent-control advocates.
“We became an issue on the agenda,” he said. “The previous administration was anti and now the council and mayor, we are working with them.”
The change from the old rent control to the vacancy decontrol was made four years ago by a City Council vote during the administration of then-mayor Mark Smith, BTO members said.
Simoncini does agree with Gilligan that with the current municipal government the winds have shifted, and it will take a stronger campaign for vacancy decontrol supporters to win again.
“The political climate in Bayonne has evolved since that vote,” Simoncini said. “I think it’s more difficult now to create any momentum because the local leadership has changed.”
Contentious few years
Gilligan contends that many tenants were displaced over the last couple of years, maybe hundreds.
La Pelusa concurred, saying some landlords intentionally made life difficult for tenants so that they would move.
“I’ve gotten calls. On some construction projects, they’d take out the sink and leave it out for months,” he said. “With rent control you can actually go back to the board of rent control and explain this. Without rent control where can you go to talk about stuff like this?”
Simoncini disagrees with this assessment, saying it is totally untrue that landlords intentionally force out tenants once rent control is lifted.
“I have never heard of even a [single] case being brought,” he said. “No one in the state of New Jersey has heard of anyone being charged with it. There’s never been a legitimate case.”
As for the theory that landlords won’t fix buildings under rent control because they are earning less and cannot afford to make improvements, La Pelusa doesn’t buy it.
“A lot of those buildings were purchased when there was rent control and the landlords kept them all these years,” he said. “So it kind of takes that argument away.”
Simoncini takes the exact opposite tack. He says that rent control keeps landlords from upgrading their properties, and that vacancy decontrol encourages such improvements.
“You can pick out the apartments improved in the last two years since vacancy decontrol,” he said. “So how come those apartments didn’t get improvements before?”
“We expect to win,” Gilligan said. “It’s so popular an issue. There’s no one fighting us on it.”
“Now, we just need people to show up and vote,” La Pelusa said.
Gilligan believes that rent control is a much larger cause than just providing affordable living spaces.
“It’s bringing back the quality to Bayonne. Rent control is bigger issues,” he said. “It has to do with businesses, the school system, and the general quality of life; that’s the general consensus. That’s the evolution we’re finding.”
Simoncini disagreed, saying vacancy decontrol is what makes a city flourish.
“It improves tax collection, improves municipal stock, reduces service calls, and encourages new residents to move into good-looking properties.”
The voters will decide on Nov. 4 which side will win.