On Wednesday, April 12th at the Jersey City Council meeting, dozens of residents and supporters were animated enough by housing issues to spend five hours in the chamber and speak on behalf of two related ordinances. Members of the Jersey City government have often chosen the interests of development companies and landlords over those of renters, who make up roughly 72% of the city.
After Mayor Steve Fulop and council representatives took a trip to Paris last month paid for by developers in pursuit of a major construction project, everyday people of Jersey City felt blindsided. The council has a chance to rectify past decisions at least partially by passing one of the most comprehensive Right to Counsel policies in the country and spearheading universal programs for tenants.
Ordinance 23-030, developed through a grassroots campaign of housing organizers and co-sponsored by three members of city council, would establish a Right to Counsel office where tenants will be connected to legal services and resources. An implementation oversight board led by tenants would be created, ensuring people impacted by these issues are at the decision-making table. Landlords will be required to inform tenants of their right to a lawyer when signing a lease and before serving a notice of eviction.
These programs are effective: New York City’s Right to Counsel helped reduce evictions by almost 40 percentoverall. Before Right to Counsel was passed, only 1 percent of tenants had representation in landlord-tenant court while 95 percent of landlords were represented. Now, 30 percent of all tenants are presented, and even more striking 84 percent of all tenants who were provided an attorney remained in their homes.
Evictions and landlord harassment can happen to anyone and can take many forms. It could look like landlords demanding tenants leave after missing one month of rent without any notice of rental assistance programs. It could look like a landlord shutting off heat or other basic utilities to force people out. It could mean losing special housing status. Right to counsel should cover all these cases.
Housing issues affect us all: Black and Brown communities face the brunt of development and are more likely to be evicted. Queer and trans people experience housing discrimination and homelessness at high rates. Nearly half of Jersey City households are considered “housing cost burdened.” We must ensure that those most vulnerable have access to protection with no barriers, regardless of things like income or immigration status. That is why, from the beginning, organizers have been advocating for a universal program. Placing arbitrary thresholds adds time and expense towards determining eligibility instead of delivering services.
As the policy stands, service will be funded by the collection of development impact fees as stated in proposed Ordinance 23-029 (the rest of the funds collected will go towards expanding affordable housing and related programs). However, this ordinance contains a wage threshold that restricts service to only those who make 80% or below of the area median income. That’s about $64,000 a year per person. Even members of the city council have pointed out that this would not cover all tenants, and we urge city council to expand funding options to make sure right to counsel is a right, not an under-funded program.
Crucially, Right to Counsel is a policy in pursuit of housing justice, but it is also a cost-saving measure. While we should expand services for the unhoused, keeping people in their homes in the first place is always less expensive.
Meanwhile real estate companies continue to push large projects forward, in particular for luxury buildings, with help from the city. The council voted last year for an affordable housing overlay that would permit developers to make 10 to 15 percent of units in new developments affordable in return for extra density. Community groups and neighborhood associations are wary that this was just another handout for developers. Without sustainable development of housing, Jersey City is exacerbating the issues of affordability seen in cities across America and prioritizing those who profit off of housing.
At the same time, the Office of Landlord/Tenant relations has not been effective in enforcing rent control or holding large landlords and property companies accountable. Fed up with irresponsible management and illegal rent increases, tenants in Jersey City have taken to organizing unions and demanding better conditions. We are asking residents of Jersey City to implore that the city council pass the most robust Right to Counsel possible by continuing to show up to upcoming council meetings.
High costs and lack of legal protections are driving working class people out of Jersey City. To add insult to injury, the mayor has stuck Wards A-D with higher taxes by not properly re-assessing property values in an effort to make Wards E and F more amenable to commercial real estate development. The law as it stands is not “fair and equitable for all.” Tenants in Jersey City deserve much more than just expanded mediation services, they need to have housing security and the ability to fight back against landlord negligence and harassment. We hope that the Planning Board review process is swift and results in no fundamental changes to the policy.
It is time that Jersey City joins New York, San Francisco, Newark, and many other cities in addressing the eviction and affordability crisis by passing Right to Counsel. Housing is a human right, and we demand no evictions without representation.