Jersey City City Hall
Jersey City City Hall

At Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council approved an amended Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, authorized over $180 Million in redevelopment bonds to be moved to the JCRA, approved an ordinance to allow the city to limit street cleaning to once/week on minor streets, passed resolutions supporting Medicare for All and endorsing the Philippine Human Rights Act, and bid farewell to Councilmen Lavarro and Robinson.

Amended Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance Approved with 15 Percent Affordable Housing Set-aside in Upper Income Neighborhoods

The City Council approved an amended Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance 8–1, with outgoing Councilman-at-large Rolando Lavarro voting no.

“The amended IZO pertains to all residential developments that contain five or more residential units or 5,000 or more square feet of residential floor area … It exempts developments of less than 15 units and developments undertaken by the Jersey City housing authority,” said Lavarro.  “I don’t think a unanimous vote would reflect the reservations of the community,” he added in dissent.

Lavarro provided the history of the IZO since its initial introduction to the council in 2019.

“In 2019, there were two competing inclusionary zoning ordinances introduced. The mayor introduced one, and Waterman [Council President Joyce Waterman] and I introduced another one. While the ordinance before us is a compromise, it is a lot closer to the ordinance Waterman and I introduced in 2019.” Those efforts were based on City Council meetings with “residents, seniors, developers, and academics to get their input,” Lavarro said.

Lavarro continued:

“An inclusionary zoning ordinance was introduced in October 2020 that did not resemble the discussions that went on through the committee process. An IZO was adopted in October 2020 that was a lot closer to what the mayor had introduced in May 2019.” The 2019 ordinance was successfully challenged in court this August by the Fair Share Housing Center.

“Over the past several months, Fair Share Housing has engaged in negotiations with the mayor and City Council. Those negotiations have culminated with this IZO.”

Lavarro pointed to the progress made in the new ordinance in moving from a 5 percent set-aside to 10   and 15 percent set-asides based on adjusted median income in a given neighborhood. However, he said, “We should have 20 percent onsite affordable housing. We see it in Newark, New York City, and San Francisco. Jersey City is one of the most lucrative real estate markets in the state, and we should be able to do 20 percent.”

He also pointed to the greater strength of the new IZO, in which “there are no buyouts, givebacks or waivers for developers to reduce their set-aside” as was the case in the previous IZO.

Lavarro then questioned whether high income areas were correctly designated.

“The area over by the 99 Ranch is set aside at 10 percent. That area as recently as 2019 was proposing to have over 900 units in multiple 50 story buildings. Also, Census Track #8 in the map, this is also deemed as not an upper income area, but the mayor purchased a second home there for $2.4 million. Most people would be incredulous, as am I, that areas like these are not designated as upper income areas.”

Lavarro also spoke to the handling of tax abatements in the new IZO.

“While it applies in lower income areas, it doesn’t apply in upper income areas, so if a development in downtown Jersey City should get a tax abatement and is required to do a 15 percent set-aside, they can get a tax abatement as well, potentially without an additional commitment to do any additional affordable housing. I think that should be rectified.”

Lavarro pointed out that “there is no housing set aside for residents who fall within the 80 – 120 percent AMI. That means for example, right now at 80 percent AMI in Jersey City, an affordable housing studio can literally charge you $1,417/month.”

Lavarro concluded by saying, “While my time as a council member may come to an end with this council meeting, my advocacy on these issues will not, and I’ll continue to fight this fight.”

Council President Joyce Waterman sounded hopeful but not overly confident in responding to Lavarro’s remarks:

“This is just a framework. This is a beginning. We will see if it works. Will it produce affordable housing, decrease it, or will we get nothing? I hope we get affordable housing because times have changed so much since 2016. Everything is so expensive now, so we’re going to have challenges trying to produce affordable housing. In the beginning, people were for tax abatements, then they were against them. When you look at certain areas of the city, things got built through tax abatements. Now we’ve added back tax abatements. We will see if anything is produced.”

Redevelopment Bonds Moved From Jersey City to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency

Two ordinances, covering over $180 million in redevelopment bonds, including the $170 million Bayfront Redevelopment Bond, were approved unanimously.

Resident Yvonne Balcer asked, “Who is responsible for paying this bond, the city or JCRA? If it’s JCRA, where do they get their money?”

John Metro, the business administrator for Jersey City replied, “The JCRA. As the project is fulfilled and development deals are negotiated, those proceeds would be used to pay down the debt. We are doing this to back up the debt for credit rating purposes to allow that the city would pick up any default payments if there are any.”

Balcer then asked, “Will I see a line item on the budget for this next year?”

Metro replied, “There will be no dollar impact on our municipal budget. It goes onto our liability sheet for future in case there is an issue with the debt in an existing year past next year.”

When the bond was issued in 2018, the intent was for Jersey City to sell the land to redevelopers before the first bond payments came due. The first payments are due this month, and the land remains unsold. By moving the bonds to the JCRA, the city shifts to the agency the responsibility for making the interest payments — although the city remains liable (as reflected on its balance sheet) for a  percentage of those payments should the JCRA default on them at any time before the property is sold.

Street Cleaning Limited to One Day Per Week on Minor Streets

An ordinance amending the street cleaning rules was adopted 8–1, with outgoing Councilman Robinson voting no. Currently, all streets are cleaned twice per week. Proponents of the new ordinance argued that this is not necessary on minor streets and creates parking problems for residents, often resulting in parking tickets.

Initially, the ordinance was intended to be rolled out citywide, but it was amended to begin with only Ward E. Several council members questioned why their wards were not chosen first and/or why the plan for a citywide rollout had changed.

In response, Jersey City Business Administrator John Metro said, “It was best to start with the less complex wards. Ward E has less main drags.”

Councilwoman Ridley remarked, “I would have liked advance notice on this. I think it’s a little tone deaf to start in Ward E. I’m going to abstain.”

Council Unanimously Passes Resolutions Supporting Medicare for All and Philippine Human Rights Act

The City Council came together to support two social action resolutions.

In the first resolution, the council urges Congress to enact emergency legislation to provide universal, comprehensive health coverage with zero cost-sharing for patients, “enthusiastically” supporting the Medicare for All Act of 2021 and calling for its immediate enactment.

In the second resolution, the council endorses the Congressional Philippine Human Rights Act protecting Jersey City human rights defenders of the Philippines.

Lavarro and Robinson End Tenure on City Council

Wednesday night was Councilman-at-large Rolando Lavarro’s last meeting on the council, ending his 10–year tenure. It was also the end of Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson’s tenure on the council.

Both councilmen thanked the people of Jersey City, the council, and all the people in city government they had worked with. The council thanked them for their service.

In his farewell remarks, Lavarro said, “Thank you to the people of Jersey City. I’ve served for 10 years. I hope you feel I have represented your interests well. In my first term, I had the opportunity to work in cooperation with the administration, and with Waterman and Rivera, who I ran with, in accomplishing the goals we set out when we ran together. In my second term, I changed my focus to trying to address the issues of gentrification and affordability with the rampant development. Thank you to my colleagues. To Waterman and Rivera, we had some good times in my first term and a little more contentious in my second term. While this ends my term, people have asked me what’s next for me. I won’t get into great detail, but I will say that these issues are important to me, particularly the issues of gentrification and affordability. While I won’t be advocating on this side of the virtual monitors, I will certainly continue to advocate as a private citizen.”

Deputy Editor Elizabeth Morrill has worked in business, not for profit fundraising and as a freelance copy editor. She holds degrees in American studies and education from Yale and Harvard.