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Arts Trust Fund, New Hotel and Redevelopment on Council Agenda


Mayor Steven M. Fulop Wants Voters to Decide Fate of Arts Trust Fund

The Jersey City Council’s Caucus meeting held Monday night included resolutions to convert a 5-story residential building into a boutique hotel, and a redevelopment plan for 37 homes in downtown Jersey City. An hour into the meeting, held in the Efrain Rosario Memorial Caucus Room in City Hall, Mayor Steven M. Fulop stopped by to discuss the Arts Trust initiative that could bring in an estimated $800,000 a year for non-profit arts groups.

Accompanied by Director of Jersey City’s Division of Cultural Affairs Christine Goodman, Mayor Fulop spoke to the Council about the Arts Trust, an arts and culture trust fund similar to the 2016 Open Space Trust Fund. The Arts Trust Fund would support local artists and arts education and would be funded by taxpayers at a maximum rate of $.02 per $100 of assessed property value. Mayor Fulop and Goodman want Jersey City voters to decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by placing a Referendum on November’s voting ballot.

“This is something we’ve worked on with the arts council for the better part of two years now,” Mayor Fulop said, “trying to find a solution to support arts and non-profits in Jersey City with long-term sustainable funding. We met with a group of about 80 organizations last Monday.”

Ward D Councilman Michael Yun questioned why the 80 organizations couldn’t fundraise for themselves. Mayor Fulop said that a lot of the organizations don’t have the infrastructure to write the grants

“They spoke about the challenges around that,” Mayor Fulop said, “and they spoke about how difficult it is to find funding. This is a challenge arts groups face around the state and the country. We think it’s important to try and help them out because (the arts) are really crucial to a city that people want to live in.”

Goodman spoke of a “severe and pervasive funding gap that Jersey City non-profits face and have faced for a very long time on the state level”.

“(Jersey City is) on the very bottom of the funding list for counties across the state,” Goodman said. “We have Essex, a comparable county pulling in $5 million in funding. The entire County of Hudson gets $200,000 to share, so there’s a huge funding gap.”

Councilman Yun asked what the arts groups would give to Jersey City in return for the funding.

“The story is what they already do for us, “ Goodman answered. “We have theaters, dance companies, but we’d like to talk about the story of arts education. This funding stream could really help programming that reaches children and young people and exposes them to art at a greater rate than they are being exposed to now.”

Mayor Fulop said the Council would set the exact tax rate with a goal of bringing in $800,000 per year which is comparable to the tax brought in to support the Open Space Trust Fund. Councilman Yun went on to say that although it was a good initiative, his main concern was the many special taxes Jersey City residents already pay.

“We have so many special taxes now, ” Councilman Yun said. “I think it’s not the right thing to do.

Proposing a new hotel

109 Columbus Drive. Photo by Sally Deering

A proposal to change the residential use of a 24-unit building to hotel use for a proposed boutique hotel was brought before the council by Charles Harrington, lawyer for the developer. Harrington said the change from residential use to hotel use would begin the process for a redevelopment plan for 109 Christopher Columbus Drive in Ward E. If the building were to be converted to hotel use, the people living in the five-story building would face eviction once their leases expired.

“If this is passed, what will happen to them?” Council President Joyce E. Watterman asked.

Harrington said that his client would work with the residents to help them relocate.

“My client is looking at that,” Harrington said. “They have rights.”

Councilman Yun said it would be important to speak with local residents and groups like the Van Vorst Park Association to get their input on the conversion.

“I’ve met with the Van Vorst group in the past,” Harrington told the Council.  “We had a similar proposal, and at that time, 4 or 5 years ago, it was really well -received. It’s a boutique hotel concept similar to here.”

Councilman James Solomon of Ward E proposed to spend the next three days meeting with members of the community for their perspective and report back his findings at Thursday night’s Council meeting.

“Before we move forward, I would like to see a financial analysis,” Councilman Lazarro added.

Redevelopment Plan for Laurel Court and Saddlewood Court

Laurel Court, Jersey City. Photo courtesy redfin.com

The Council moved on to a resolution concerning 37 homes in Laurel Court and Saddlewood Court in downtown Jersey City’s Ward E, and the approval for redevelopment and “condemnation of the property” because the homes, built in the 1970s, are dilapidated and outdated. If approved, the homeowners could sell their homes to the developer for profit.

“(The homeowners) met with me in 2018,” Councilman Solomon said, “and 37 out of the 38 homeowners on that lot said this is what they want. That is my understanding of where we’re at.”

Councilman Lavarro said the 37 homeowners are likely motivated by an inability to afford living in Jersey City, but he disapproved of the resolution because it doesn’t justify the need for condemnation of the property. The homes under consideration would be “prized homes in other parts of the city,” he said.

“If you’re going to declare this as an area in need of redevelopment, you have to be able to justify that,” Councilman Lavarro said. “We can go out and mark every home throughout Jersey City as an area in need of redevelopment and make it a home for the affluent and the wealthy. That’s not the way I want to go about redeveloping Jersey City”

Without justification, it seems unlikely the Council will approve redevelopment.

Council President Joyce E. Watterman presided over the Caucus meeting with Councilman at Large Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr., Councilman at Large Daniel Rivera, Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley, Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, Ward D Councilman Michael Yun, Ward E Councilman James Solomon and Ward F Councilman Jermaine D. Robinson in attendance.

The next Jersey City Council Meeting will be held on Thursday, Feb. 13, at 6 pm
Council Chambers
Jersey City Hall
280 Grove St, JC
For more info: jerseycitynj.gov

Header: Mayor Steven M. Fulop and Cultural Affairs Director Christine Goodman Address the City Council at its Caucus Meeting on Monday. Photo by Sally Deering

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Charges of Political Opportunism and Racism Dominate As City Council Approves Board of Education Referendum


Last night, over five raucous hours punctuated by cheers, boos, and admonitions from City Council President Joyce Watterman, residents of Jersey City trudged up to the podium in the Council chambers to vent over the mayor’s proposal to turn the board of education into an appointed body. And vent they did. The proposal brought out teachers, union reps, activists, and parents, united in near-unanimous  opposition to the plan for a referendum that would put the question to voters.

Phil Rivo was notable as the evening’s sole dissenter.

“Right now, every year there is a board of education election. Every year, the teachers’ union is spending upwards of half a million dollars, and developers are spending half a million dollars for a job that pays nothing,” he said. Rivo then cited the five recent Board resignations before adding, “It doesn’t make sense. I would like to see professional people run it.”

If Rivo’s position was the exception, Josephine Paige’s was closer to the rule and highlighted a deep distrust of the mayor and his motives.

“A mayor who wants to change the democratic process is saying his judgment is better than the voters. I don’t want to see the board of education used to advance his political career.”

Lmani Viney standing and pointing at council, School Board president Lorenzo Richardson in foreground. Photo by Jersey City Times

History teacher Lmani Viney likened the mayor’s proposal to the democratic rights that were ceded to Hitler, Stalin, and Napoleon. Maria Scariati, who recalled fundraising for the mayor, ascribed the proposal to the mayor’s “insatiable appetite for primacy.”  McNair High School athletic director Kristen Zadroga-Hart described the referendum as “nothing more than an opportunistic power grab.”  “It feels sneaky” quipped fellow teacher Colleen Kelleher. “This is straight out of George Orwell,” opined Natalie Ioffe, a parent and Soviet émigré.  Referring to past and present African-American school superintendents and board members, Jersey City Education Association President Ronald Greco accused the mayor of having “a problem with black men.”  Tracey Luz ascribed the plan as an effort to promote white supremacy. And so it went for the mayor.

The city council came in for criticism as well.

“What’s the rush?” Chris Gadsen asked. “When were you going to discuss it with the people who actually elected you?”  “Don’t let anyone on this council take your schools away from you,” intoned Daryn Martin. Jeanne Daly demanded to know which council members had “been bought.” Echoing several other speakers, Daly promised to exact revenge on councilmembers. “This is going to be a big problem if you move forward,” he warned. “This is a promise.”

Numerous speakers brought up the case of board of education member Joan Terrell- Paige, whose comments on Facebook following the kosher market attack were deemed by many to have been anti-Semitic and which brought calls for her resignation.

Daryn Martin promised to remember at election time that councilmembers Jermaine Robinson and James Solomon had done exactly that.   “No one is going to get a slab of Joan Terrell Paige. She is not raw beef. Four Hasidic rabbis were indicted for organ trafficking,” said Kabili Tayari. “Ms. Terrell didn’t say anything wrong,” added Kathrine Burno. Steve Goldberg, on the other hand, asked the audience to call out anti-Semitism. “You can hate me, you can hate a Jew, but you can’t hate Jews.”  On a night where speakers were cheered liberally throughout the evening, the room responded with silence.

Also in attendance and apparently on a p.r. offensive was a group of Hasidic men, armed with banners, proclaiming their biblical duty to be good neighbors.

“We condemn buying houses and throwing people out,” said Yoel Loeb. “It isn’t right to call people with concerns anti-Semitic.”

Fellow Hasid, Joel Eidlits explained that they had come to Jersey City because they “couldn’t pay the rent in Brooklyn.”  Eidlits and Loeb both distanced themselves from the Anti-Defamation League, the Chabad Lubovitch movement, and the “evil Jews who created the state of Israel.”

In the end, the council voted 7 to 1 with one abstention to move ahead with the referendum. James Solomon noted that in seven years, not a single board member had been elected without the help of a “super-pac.”

“The issues before the board are huge; the status quo is unacceptable,” Solomon noted.

Council president Watterman explained that she “has to answer to parents.”

Summing up the views of several other councilmembers, she noted that “the vote will give the city a chance to reach a consensus. Let the people say.”

As the sole “no” vote, Councilman Rich Boggiano said he had conferred with the board and was “confident” that it could do the job.

The audience did not take the vote sitting down.

When taunted by an audience member, Councilman Jermaine Robinson offered to settle their differences “outside.” Then when the audience was reminded that the JCEA had promoted the candidacy of twice-indicted board president Sudhan Thomas, a screaming JCEA President Ronald Greco rushed the podium under the watchful eyes of two Jersey City cops. Before being led out of the chambers, Greco accused the council en mass of racism.

The referendum will take place on November 3, 2020. If approved by voters, a new, appointed board of education would be seated on July 1, 2021.

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Information on Gatherings, Fundraisers, and Resources


From the Office of Ward E Councilman James Solomon:

As the city grapples with Tuesday’s events, we want to ensure everyone knows about gatherings, fundraisers, and resources to grieve and giveback together.

Events:

  • Today, 12/12, 7-8pm: The City Council and NJCU organized a candlelight vigil on campus (2039 JFK Blvd).
  • Today, 12/12, 7-9pm: For a less formal gathering, Grace Van Vorst is opening its doors to all for mutual support, processing, and remembrance with food, music, prayer, and togetherness. 7-9 p.m. (39 Erie St.)
  • Tomorrow (Friday), 12/13, 4:30pm: Hudson County Students Demand Action will host a rally / vigil at the City Hall Annex (1 Jackson Square) at 4:30.

Resources:

  1. Go Fund Me for Det. Joseph Seals – https://www.gofundme.com/f/for-det-seals-and-his-family
  2. Go Fund Me for Miguel Douglas Rodriguez – https://www.gofundme.com/f/douglas-rodriguez-victim-of-the-jc-shooting?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet
  3. Go Fund Me for Michael Rumberger: (livery driver murdered on Saturday in Bayonne. The two suspects in the Tuesday shooting are also the suspects in his murder) – https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-me-give-my-dad-the-proper-burial?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=m_pd+share-sheet

Support:

  • If you would like a safe, trained counselor to talk to about what you or your children are feeling today, the toll-free national Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7 toll-free crisis counseling in multiple languages and Deaf/hard-of-hearing relay services at 800–985–5990 (for Spanish, press 2) or by texting ‘TalkWithUs’ or ‘Hablanos’ to 66746.
  • Some resources on talking to loved ones and taking care of yourself as we move through this together: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/disaster-types/mass-violence

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No matter the outcome, short-term rental fight, related issues, will persist


On Nov. 5, Jersey City residents will go to the polls to vote for new school board members, state assembly reps, county executive, and county sheriff. There’s also an important Public Question that will give a tax deduction to certain military veterans who live in retirement homes. Yet the race that has sucked all the oxygen this election cycle is the fight over short-term rentals and the degree to which they should be regulated.

Activists advocating for the Vote Yes campaign want residents to support city-approved regulations that would place some limits on short-term rentals. Those backing the Vote No campaign want residents to reject the regulations set to go into effect next year; their hope is the city will instead go back to the drawing board and draft a different set of regulations that targets “bad actors” on the short-term rental scene and places fewer restrictions on everyone else.

Activists for both groups say they believe their side will prevail on Election Day. Regardless of the outcome, however, this likely won’t be the last time city residents hear of short-term rentals. “Vote No” advocates say they are already prepared for the next round of the fight. “Vote Yes” proponents also admit that, as the short-term rental market grows and evolves, residents will probably have to reconsider how best to regulate it.

PRINZ-AREY: 3,000 UNITS ‘GAVE US PAUSE’

The Municipal Question 1 measure that Jersey City residents will either approve or reject on Nov. 5 has galvanized the city’s activists and neighborhood associations. Still, many residents remain confused about what all the rancor is about and how the debate affects them. The flood of Vote Yes/Vote No TV commercials and related campaign fliers have only muddied the discussion.

The short-term rental market was born nearly two decades ago when a handful of companies made it possible to link residential property owners with travelers looking for affordable lodging options while on vacation. Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO — which actually got its start before the better known Airbnb — are among the most popular apps in this growing industry. Homeowners warmed to these services because they allowed them to make some income off of spare rooms, attics, basements, and underutilized second homes — income they then used to offset property taxes and other living expenses. Since this niche market was new, long-term tenants similarly sub-let their rental apartments and spare rooms through short-term apps, using the extra cash to offset their own rent.

This business model proved to be equally popular with travelers and tourists. The per-night stay booked through a short-term rental site could often be cheaper than booking a hotel room. Staying in a home in a residential community also allowed travelers to “live like a native” while on vacation, since some property owners — who the industry refers to as “hosts” — were eager to recommend out of the way restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, and activities to renters looking for a non-tourist vacation experience. Early proponents of home-sharing argued that this model was a boon to local small businesses that benefitted from having customers steered to them since hosts could recommend independently operated shops over national franchise operations.

Rather quickly the short-term industry grew and caught the eye of lawmakers across the globe who questioned whether this burgeoning industry should be regulated. The Jersey City Council approved and legally recognized short-term rentals in 2015, when there were only a handful of local properties on the short-term rental market.

“Home-sharing platforms were new. And any time you have new technology, or new business, regulation should always come second because you don’t really know how it’s going to affect the landscape,” said Ward B City Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, who in 2015 had not yet been elected to office. “When the first ordinance was put in place [the council said], let’s be fair. Let’s not tell people no, as they did in other cities in Hudson County. The council said, let’s see what this can do for us and some of our residents. [At the time], there were about 300 [properties] on these platforms. When they started to see that number go up and up and up, that gave us pause.”

There are now about 2,600 to 3,000 properties in Jersey City that can be leased on the short-term rental market.

“Vote Yes” advocates recently protested outside 278 Barrow St., where a New York-based developer advertises several units on the short-term rental market. Research indicates such units are partly to blame for rising rents nationally.

Prinz-Arey and Ward E City Councilman James Solomon co-sponsored an ordinance that places restrictions on what properties can be placed on the short-term rental market, who is allowed to put these properties up for rent, and the number of days non-owner occupied properties can be rented out. The ordinance  <<https://www.jerseycitynj.gov/UserFiles/Servers/Server_6189660/File/Agendas,%20Mins,%20Res%20&%20Ord/2019%20Ordinances/OR2%202019%2006%2025.pdf>>; was passed by the City Council in June after holding several meetings with residents and special interest groups.

While the ordinance does not outlaw short-term rentals, people who opposed the ordinance argue that the restrictions approved by the council are so stringent that they are tantamount to a “ban.” They further argue that people who support short-term rentals were either ignored or excluded from the discussions held before the law was drafted. In response, and with a big assist from market leader Airbnb, they fought back and led a successful petition drive to let voters decide whether or not the caps outlined in the law should be implemented. Their petition drive is what led to Municipal Question 1. A yes vote will allow these restrictions to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. If approved by voters, the restrictions will remain in place for three years. A no votes means these restrictions will not take effect.

“We need a smarter ordinance,” said Felicia Palmer, who has been a short-term rental host for the past decade.

“Vote Yes” proponent Sue Altman, State Director of New Jersey Working Families, believes upholding this legislation would serve as a beacon for the rest of the state.

“This legislation sets a precedent,” said Altman. “I’ve had conversations with representatives from a number of cities who are looking at this as the canary in the gold mine because how Jersey City goes is kind of how other suburban towns will go as well. Airbnb knows Jersey City a lucrative market, but it’s not the only lucrative market. We’re going to see this play out over and over again, and I think that’s part of the reason why this referendum is so important to them.”

Airbnb announced in September that it will launch an initial public offering sometime next year.

‘A CATCH-22’

At the heart of the short-term rental fight are longstanding concerns that will certainly continue after Election Day. This debate ignites fears about rising property taxes, affordable housing, parking shortages, job security, quality of life, and corporate influence as residents of all stripes feel they might get squeezed out of their homes and neighborhoods.

After the city legalized short-term rentals in 2015, wealthy investors bought up dozens of apartment units, once available for long-term renters, and put them on the short-term market. Advocates who support the city’s regulations say this trend is at odds with the folksy, mom-and-pop origins of the short-term renting. They point to hosts like New York-based developer Michael MCKay who lists 24 short-term rentals throughout Jersey City.

Several studies have also found that short term rentals have put upward pressure on rent and housing prices. One study by the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, for example, found that, nationally, for every one percent rise in Airbnb listings there was a .0018 percent rise in rents and a .026 percent rise in housing prices. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has said the city saw a 500 percent increase in Airbnb listing between 2016 and 2019.

Given that the city is already unaffordable for many residents, including renters who have been forced out, Vote Yes advocates say some breaks need to be applied to the industry’s growth.

“It’s not that I’m against short-term rentals, or Airbnb, specifically,” said Ward A City Councilwomen Denise Ridley. “I believe it does have a place in this market and that it’s useful for residents who need additional income. I believe Airbnb is a good system. But like everything, you have to set some limits and regulations. A lot of what we’re trying to target are people using Airbnb and taking over multiple units at a time, taking away housing from our residents in Jersey City.”

Proponents of the Vote No campaign agree that affordable housing is a problem, but stress the problem existed long before Airbnb, and they believe it’s unfair to lay longstanding urban issues at the threshold of short-term rentals.

“I’m a living testament to how earning money by Airbnb is providing a safety net for my family,” Palmer said. A Jersey City resident since 1995,

Vote No advocate and Jersey City resident Felicia Palmer said without income from short-term rentals she might not have been able to absorb a $12,000 tax increase or medical bills after a cancer diagnosis.

Palmer said extra Airbnb income from her downtown home saw her family through the Great Recession, expensive medical bills after she was diagnosed with cancer, and a tax reval that saw her property taxes go from $6,000 to $18,000 a year. “I can truly say that if it wasn’t for extra income from Airbnb I might not have my home and I might not even be alive. They’re putting up this straw man and saying it’s about Airbnb and affordable housing. As an individual owner, that’s not my job. That’s the city’s job, to provide affordable housing.”

If approved by voters, the city’s short-term rental regs would allow people to rent out their homes, provided the owner lives on-site. These owners would face no restrictions on the number of days they could rent out their homes. But owners who do not live at the address they are renting on the short-term market would only be able to rent for 60 days a year, and would be capped after those 60 days. Renters would be prohibited from subleasing on the short-term market; and short-term rentals would be prohibited in buildings with more than four units.

McGinley Square resident Michele Lewis-Bellamy, who has owned her home for 16 years, said she does not currently rent out on the short-term market, although it is something she would consider. Still, she said she has concerns.

“It’s a Catch-22. As a homeowner, of course, I want to see the neighborhood revitalized,” Lewis-Bellamy said. “I want to see it grow. I want our businesses here to thrive. I want my neighbors to be able to afford to stay. But I also don’t want to be a stranger in my neighborhood. You want to revitalize a neighborhood in a way that makes it so we can all stay here. I feel like a lot of people are being pushed out. All these people that made the flavor of the neighborhood, they get pushed out. [Short-term rentals] make it possible for some people to be here. But it could force other people out.”

The platforms that operate short-term rental sites are “corporate entities,” she said, that don’t necessarily care about these on the ground neighborhood concerns. She adding that hosts are left to navigate these and other issues on their own. Lewis-Bellamy said she knew how she planned to vote on Election Day, but declined to share whether she would vote yes or no.

The Jeffries family is evenly split on Municipal Question 1, with parents Bill and Marcia planning to vote yes, and daughters Dionne and Del planning to vote no. Both parents say they work hotel maintenance in Brooklyn, New York, and will vote yes to support the Hotel Trades Council.

The union is among several labor groups that are urging a “yes” vote because they see short-term rentals as unfair competition to the hotel industry. Unions groups, including the Hudson County Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO and the New Jersey AFL-CIO, provided much of the ground volunteers who worked to get out the vote for the “Vote Yes” campaign. They contend a massive effort on their part was necessary to counter the $5 million Airbnb invested in their own “Vote No” effort.

“If the hotels lose money to these [short-term rentals], there could be layoffs,” Bill Jeffries said. “That would bad for people like me.”

Ironically, his daughters both make ends meet by cleaning and taking care of two Airbnb properties in the Heights for an owner who lives in Pennsylvania. Like Lewis-Bellamy, he too admits the vote will be a Catch-22 for him.

“My girls are trying to save money to move out,” Jeffries continued. “So, they need these jobs. But if the [property owner] can’t keep renting out his Airbnb apartments they’ll probably lose their jobs…Problem is, there ain’t a lot of jobs out there. They lose this, I don’t know. I don’t see them moving out…We’ll still be here dealing with this mess after the election is over. Either way, we’ll be dealing with it. These problems — jobs, housing, high cost of living — they ain’t going away.”

Nearly every resident interviewed expressed frustration with forces bigger than them that seem to pit communities against each other.

“The tensions we see now in our economy and in our communities are grounded in fear and competition, instead of progress and growth,” said Melissa Bradley, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business who specializes in social entrepreneurship. “Historically, in this country we saw changes that were reflective of [trends] that were less disruptive to people’s lives and well being. Today, we’re seeing changes that exacerbate the inequality gap, and the stakes are a lot higher for more people.”

If the Vote No side wins on Election Day, Airbnb spokeswoman Liz DeBold said, “Our hope would be to work with the council to pass sensible regulation.”

If the opposition wins she said Airbnb will encourage its hosts to get the law changed when it expires in three years.

When asked what the city response will be if the opposition wins on Election Day, City Spokeswoman Kim Wallace-Scalcione said, “We’re confident Jersey City residents know who to trust in this case. Their police and fire unions, their teachers union, community groups, 15 neighborhood associations, Jersey City Together, statewide leaders in affordable housing, and nearly every elected officials have all publicly supported a ‘Yes Vote.’ We are confident residents will vote YES and be among the first to send a message that Airbnb cannot manipulate residents with their money.”

 

 

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