Solomon and right to counsel

After nearly a year of deliberations and internal negotiations, Jersey City has become the latest the city to adopt a tenants’ “Right-to-Counsel” law as the City Council – in a rare move – unanimously adopted the measure Wednesday night.

Mayor Steven Fulop joined several council members the following day on the steps of City Hall to “celebrate” the passage of the law which, according to its backers, will “level the playing field” in landlord-tenant disputes.

The city justifies RTC as a necessary weapon to help tenants faced with “fixed or stagnating incomes,” surging rents, a shortage of safe, affordable housing and  “frivolous and/or retaliatory eviction actions by landlords.”

A combination of these factors has led to what the city calls a “housing emergency”  tenants free legal counsel is an essential tool for staving off homelessness.

In the near future, the city may also be looking to strengthen its rent-control laws to address concerns by tenants like those at Portside Towers who continue to press the council for help in fighting significant rent increases and health and safety violations.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Fulop said he felt RTC “can be replicated statewide,” a goal he’d look to achieve if elected governor in 2025. 

The impromptu press conference was organized by Ward E Councilmember James Solomon, who was the driving force behind the ordinance. 

Public interest groups, clergy, and regional politicians had all pressed for the law’s passage as vital for the protection of tenants, who comprise about 70 percent of the city’s population, while organizations representing property owners and landlords have opposed it as prejudicial and wrong-headed.

Still, income-restricted tenants facing potential evictions for non-payment of rent or other issues shouldn’t expect immediate access to free legal representation for up to two years because of the benchmarks the city must achieve to set the program in motion.

First, as prescribed by the city legislation, the city must create within the Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce, a Division of Tenants’ Right to Counsel, appoint a division director who must be a New Jersey attorney with experience in landlord/tenant issues. 

The director will work with a non-salaried seven-member Tenants’ Advisory Board, of whom “at least half” must be Jersey City tenants, appointed by the mayor with council consent. The mayor and Council president shall be non-voting members. Each will serve two-year terms. The board will assist in “designing educational and enforcement programs” to implement RTC policies and serve as liaison between the city and community organizations.

The director “shall, no later than January 1, 2026, have fully implemented a program to provide free access to legal services for Jersey City residents in Landlord-Tenant Court in the Superior Court of New Jersey—Hudson County.”

To get started, the director must advertise for and select “one or more” nonprofits such as a legal services clinic to provide legal representation to eligible tenants with a household income not greater than 80 percent of the current area median annual income (which now would be $71,662).

Should sufficient funds become available, the director may expand access to legal services to tenants whose household income may be greater than 80 percent of the AMI and widen those services to include “conducting and/or funding mediation and dispute resolution.”

At his or her discretion, the director “may engage community groups” to help educate tenants and the general public about forming tenant associations or to refer tenants to “advocacy groups.”

Eligible tenants will be able to apply for legal assistance “after the service of an eviction notice ….”  The director must then schedule a tenant-lawyer conference “no later than one week” prior to their initial court appearance. The city must provide translators if needed.

As of January 1, 2025, the director must produce a “written notice of tenants’ rights and resources, including the (RTC) and how to access it” and present it to the Advisory Board for a 30-day review and recommendations.

Starting July 1, 2025, landlords and/or the city Housing Authority must provide tenants with that written notice when they execute a lease, make a rent demand, or serve an eviction notice.

The director must submit to the mayor, business administrator, and City Council a proposed annual budget no later than March 1 of the given budget year, giving a full accounting of services rendered and justification for more funding. The council can amend the budget.

“No later than May 1, 2026, and bi-annually by each December 1 and May 1 thereafter,” each nonprofit retained by the director to provide legal services shall submit a report listing the number of tenants assisted, accompanied by a history of their tenancy and family background, the disposition of their court cases and the landlords involved in those cases.

The director shall conduct a public hearing twice each year on the bi-annual reports submitted to the city. Public notices of each hearing must be “translated into Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Tagalog, American Sign Language, and other languages deemed necessary to reach all residents of Jersey City.”

A companion ordinance and resolution also approved by the City Council establishes a method for financing the RTC program via “development fees” imposed by the city on both new residential and non-residential construction projects in the city as permitted by guidelines set by the state’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) but limits the use of those fees to no more than 20 percent of the total collected.

The council is asking the city Planning Board to undertake a 35-day review of the proposal to determine if it is consistent with the city’s master plan or if judged inconsistent to recommend a way of amending the proposal to implement an acceptable alignment.

If the proposal is sanctioned by the Planning Board, then residential developers whose projects get site plan approval between July 31, 2023, and June 30, 2024, will pay a fee of 0.5 percent of the equalized assessed value of the property. That fee will rise to 1 percent for projects approved between July 1, 2024, and June 30, 2025, and to 1.5 percent for projects sanctioned beginning July 1, 2025. 

However, out of respect for “small scale” developers, the legislation will exempt “owner-occupied residential structures containing four or fewer units” from residential development fees “provided that the owner uses the residential structure as a primary residence for … at least five years from the start of the exemption.”

Non-residential developers of new projects, with certain exceptions, will be assessed a 2.5 percent development fee. No timeline is prescribed.

As a final step in the path to implementing the RTC, the City Council has asked the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Application Review Committee to review the city’s proposed spending plan for financing the program so that the plan can then be referred to the State Superior Court for final judgement.

Court approval of the plan must be secured for the city to implement RTC, Solomon said. He offered no timetable for when that goal might be achieved.

Meanwhile, the Council voted Wednesday for a resolution designed to pursue another avenue “to establish an emergency rental assistance program for the purpose of helping Jersey City households unable to pay rent and utilities.” 

The measure proposes “to use competitive contracting” to facilitate that goal but no further details on how this plan would play out were readily available.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...