Right to counsel

I applaud the city council for passing ordinances on Wednesday that establish the Right To Counsel and fees on developers to fund affordable housing and free legal representation for tenants. This is a big step forward, and will contribute to a more humane city and economy. I hope that the city will demonstrate urgency in fully implementing this program as soon as possible, rather than considering it satisfactory to simply meet the 2026 deadline.

However, I want to express my concern that while all our city council members ultimately made the right decision in passing these ordinances, some were upset that real-estate investors weren’t adequately consulted, or were worried about the effect these reforms will have on the “market” and developers’ “right” to make a return on their investment.

I’m afraid this shows a certain level of confusion. Perhaps we have allowed a corporate-dominated political environment to warp our mindset. Nobody has a “right” to make a profit. That’s a risk you take when you make an investment. But people should have the right to a home.

Property rights are not sacrosanct; human lives are. Housing, food, clothing, a quality education, healthcare — these things are basic needs and should be considered human rights. Many countries with far less resources than ours provide these things. The United States has more than enough resources to make them available to everyone; we simply choose not to. That shows who is really in control.

If those who control immense resources can be compelled by city, state, and federal government to make these basic human needs accessible to the general public, that is well and fine and good. But when those who control basic resources like land and housing fail to make them available to people, and even stand in the way of government measures to improve people’s lives, they prove themselves to be bad stewards and deserve to lose those privileges. If a slumlord or big developer is suddenly unable to collect huge rent checks, they’re still in a much better position than the ordinary worker who just lost their job. Many of us have already been there at some point in our lives, with little to no help on the way; so, it’s hard for us to show much sympathy for those with great wealth who cry poor.

It’s important to make this point, because Right To Counsel is just the first step. Many more reforms are needed to ensure everyone has a safe, stable, and dignified home. At the council meeting, there were numerous calls from the public, for example, to strengthen rent control and close the existing loopholes. We also need to make rental assistance much more widely available, and it’s good the city is taking steps in that direction.

I understand those who pointed out the need to support minority-owned businesses. I agree that we need to make it easier for Black and Brown people and women and other under-represented groups to have an equal voice and stake in every aspect of the economy, and at all levels. This will also help working people unite across racial, national, and gender lines, which is what we need to move forward.

But this does not change the fact that we need to think about development in a way that prioritizes human needs, not profits. In order to solve the housing issue, we need government officials who understand that in any situation where there is a basic conflict between people’s housing needs and developers’ profits, people’s needs come first. That’s the bottom line.

Congratulations to all the tenant activists and supporters who put in the time to get these ordinances across the finish line, and special acknowledgement is due to Councilman James Solomon, Councilman Frank Gilmore, and Councilman Yousef Saleh who stood with tenants in this fight early on.

The council’s 9-0 vote proves that organizing works. As Frederick Douglass declared in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Let’s keep fighting forward. Housing is a human right!

Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a member of the Right To Counsel JC coalition which successfully organized to pass two Jersey City ordinances for tenants' right to free legal representation and affordable housing.