The Jersey City City Council Wednesday night took the first step to establishing a “Right to Counsel” for the city’s tenants who comprise about 70 percent of the population and who, advocates say, face increasing prospects of evictions by landlords’ hiking rents to unprecedented numbers. Tenants at Portside Towers on the city’s waterfront, in particular, have been pushing for the city to move forward with this initiative.

A public hearing on two ordinances proposing to set up the mechanism for the service and a strategy for the city to fund it by compelling developers to pay fees promoting affordable housing strategies is slated for June 14.

Despite what they feel is the city’s apparent good intentions, advocates of “RTC” wonder why, according to the city ordinance, the program will take three years to begin operating.

The city ordinance now being considered by the council offers a lengthy preamble defending the need for an RTC, saying the council “… finds that an emergency exists within Jersey City where many of its residents are homeless or are at risk of homelessness and/or reside in uninhabitable living conditions due to a shortage of affordable housing and a lack of knowledge and awareness of tenants’ rights.

“This emergency was created in part by the filing of frivolous and/or retaliatory eviction actions by landlords renting residential property in Jersey City; and

“A landlord will be less likely to file a frivolous lawsuit if they are aware that their tenant will be assisted by legal counsel in preparing and asserting available legal defenses to the tenant’s eviction action; this will mitigate the aforementioned emergency and reduce the serious threats to the public health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of Jersey City created by said emergency; and

“A lack of knowledge and awareness of their legal rights, the fear of being evicted without good cause, and being forced to seek housing in a limited housing market, discourages many Jersey City tenants from fighting eviction actions or complaining about substandard housing conditions; it is this fear that contributes to homelessness as well as to the harmful, uninhabitable conditions in which many Jersey City tenants live; this warrants legislative action by the governing body; and

… in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Jersey City, it is necessary to provide access to legal services to tenants who are subject to eviction proceedings.”

To put this procedure into effect, the legislation proposes the creation of a new city Division of Tenants’ Right to Counsel within the Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce and the hiring of a division director “who shall, no later than Jan. 1, 2026, have fully implemented a program to provide free access to legal services for Jersey City tenants in Landlord-Tenant Court in the Superior Court of New Jersey Hudson County.

The director is to be a New Jersey attorney with a background in landlord-tenant matters.

The director will be authorized to select one or more nonprofits or legal-aid clinics to provide legal representation to tenants who qualify for that representation. The director may also “engage community groups to inform and educate” tenants about their rights under the law.

A seven-member tenants advisory board comprised of at least 4 local tenants “will be appointed by the mayor with City Council consent and will advise the mayor and council “on issues of common concern to tenants within Jersey City (and) review the performance of (the legal advisers).”

Starting in May 2026, the director will log the number of tenants who contacted the office for help, who were screened for intake, and who qualified for the service and received counsel, along with inventory tenants’ histories in a data base.

To finance the program, the city through a separate ordinance proposes to collect “development fees to fund affordable housing,” from which funding budgeted for administrative purposes would be drawn to pay for the RTC program.

Residential developers would be assessed fees ranging from 0.5% to 1.5% of the total value of the land and/or improvements involved in a project, depending on the type of development project.

Certain exemptions are built into the assessment formula. Fees amounting to 2.5% of the equalized assessed value of land and improvements would be assessed for non-residential developers, also with certain exceptions built into the law.

“At least 30%” of all fees collected will be used to pay for “affordability assistance programs” such as down payments for purchases of affordable units, security deposits, low interest loans, rents and help with emergency repairs.

For households earning 30% or less of area median income, that assistance can take the form of “buying down the cost of low or moderate income units to make them affordable.”

The city is permitted to contract with a private or public entity to administer this ordinance “to create and/or preserve affordable housing in Jersey City.”

No more than 20% of the overall fees collected would be used for administrative purposes, including the RTC program.

In a separate development, the council voted to introduce an ordinance proposing to license “smoke shops” and tobacco stores.

The council defined smoke shop as a business that displays visible exterior and interior signage specifically advertising “smoking or any tobacco product, smoking product or smoking paraphernalia or has displays of smoking products or smoking paraphernalia measuring a total of 10 or more linear feet or has retail sales of smoking products or smoking paraphernalia of more than $1,000 in any month.”

Tobacco stores, by contrast, are defined as businesses whose primary sales are

“tobacco products, other smoking products, or smoking paraphernalia….”

This ordinance would ban the sale or distribution of “any electronic smoking device which delivers a flavored smoking product…”

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...