For eleven months, Kevin Weller and his neighbors at the Portside apartment complex in upscale Paulus Hook have waged an unlikely grass-roots campaign to establish that their units are covered by rent control. On Thursday night, their efforts paid off when The Jersey City Rent Leveling Board said they were.
With the board finding unanimously that the original owners of the two Portside buildings — 100 Warren Street and 155 Washington Street — had failed to obtain an exemption from rent control, the owner, Equity Residential, now appears to be on the hook for rent overcharges in excess of $75 million going back to 2016.
“To finally have a lawful outcome was shocking” said Weller of the board decision.
Over the last year, Weller and a group of Portside tenants hired lawyers, lobbied public officials, pleaded with a city administrator, met with the mayor, and attended city council meetings, all with an eye to undoing what they said had been illegal rent overcharges that date back to 1998, when Equity took over the two towers sitting at the entrance to Liberty Marina.
Equity Residential is a Chicago based real estate investment trust.
“I’ve been to more city council meetings than any city councilperson. I only missed one since the first week of November” said Weller who, without any legal training, can explain the intricacies of the rent control laws with the fluency of a seasoned attorney. At each meeting he was joined by a phalanx of his co-tenants.
While it appears the overcharges date back to 1998, the ruling is limited by the statute of limitations to overcharges after 2016.
By ordinance, a landlord of a rent controlled building can raise the rent by 4% or the previous year’s change in the consumer price index. Apparently, under the misimpression that Portside was not under rent control, Equity Residential raised rents from 20% to 35%. One tenant saw a one year rent hike of $2,000 per month. At Thursday’s meeting, the Rent Leveling Board determined that Equity had never obtained an exemption from rent control and was, thus, overcharging its tenants.
There were victims along the way, says Weller. One 18-year resident of Portside was evicted for non-payment of rent during the pandemic. As it turns out, Weller believes that Equity may have owed him as much as $200,000 at the time he was forced out of the complex.
Weller had harsh words for Mayor Fulop and former Rent Leveling Administrator Dinah Hendon, who early on issued a ruling that would have limited Equity Residential’s liability. “What Dinah did was so unusually in defiance of the clear written ordinance” said Weller. Weller met with Fulop — who has made addressing the problem of affordability a centerpiece of his campaign for governor — and found him unsympathetic.
Indeed, affordability has been an ongoing issue in Jersey City with many long-time residents saying they are being pushed out by rising rents.
Equity Residential, mayor Fulop and Dinah Hendon did not respond to requests for comment.
Weller thinks the ruling will have far reaching consequences across the state. “They unanimously not just ruled in our favor but put on the record the filing requirements, they put the city on notice that now every tenant in the city can point to our ruling. There’s no way the rent leveling board administrator can pretend that this is not the law.”