Joel Brooks Jersey City

Recently, we sat down to chat with community activist and union representative Joel Brooks, covering everything from rent control to socialism.

JCT: Hi, Joel. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. To start, could you tell me about your background professionally, educationally, and in terms of your work in the community?

JB: So, I moved here five years ago. I worked for HPAE [The Health Professionals and Allied Employees], the largest healthcare workers union in New Jersey. We have a big presence in Hudson County, and that’s where I’ve worked since 2014. But I was living in New York at the time. I moved here five years ago.

I was born in Honduras, Central America. I was adopted by a Jewish family. I grew up in Connecticut. I went to college in New York and am the first college graduate in my family. My dad is a postal clerk. My mom worked in retail, and after I graduated college I worked in the labor movement, first as an organizer and then later at HPAE as a union representative.

JCT: In terms of your involvement in local politics or community service, what have you been doing?

JB: I moved here five years ago, and I vote in every election. You can check my voting history there. I got engaged in local politics around the Hudson County government’s contract with ICE. This was obviously during the Trump Administration. The existence of ICE predated Trump, but the brutality of it was worse under Trump. And I just could not stomach that our county was detaining migrants for money from ICE, especially given what it did and what it is doing to the state. So, I just was one of these people that saw something online that said, “Come speak out.” And I went to the Freeholders’ meeting on Newark Avenue. I think the first one I went to was the one where they would not allow press in because it was in the courthouse. So it was a kind of very charged atmosphere. And that’s where I met some DSA folks.

JCT: That’s the Democratic Socialists of America?

JB: Yeah. I had been a DSA member for a couple of years prior. I joined DSA at the invitation of a friend in the labor movement, and then I got to work on the Bernie 2016 presidential campaign in Pennsylvania for a month. And so it was kind of a natural connection of there’s something going on in Jersey City, in Hudson County. I know DSA, and so I started working with DSA and organizing with the DSA.

JCT: Was that in Jersey City?

JB: So, that was 2018. The [ICE] contract was renewed and that kind of pulled the wool pulled over my eyes in terms of you know, we have a 100% government represented by members of the Democratic party, but we do have some right of center policies, longstanding, that are hurting people in our community. I decided to run for Democratic county committee in 2019. I got my sample ballot in the mail four days before the election. I had heard about the Hudson County Progressive Alliance, and I think I had some emails back and forth with them, and I was just upset that everyone was running unopposed. So, I decided to run for county committee, and I pulled the list from the county clerk of registered voters.

I started knocking on doors and as a write-in candidate, I lost by one vote in 2019. And that kind of drew me into local politics even more.  Fast forward to 2020 around the Jersey City budget that was passed, I think in August of 2020. I think the council had an opportunity to do something even symbolic around the moment of George Floyd and diverting the $5 million in public safety funds to the schools, affordable housing, youth, and recreation. And that’s like the famous meeting that went until two in the morning. I was part of a group that did try to convince the current council member to support that amendment that Solomon and Lavarro put forward and she didn’t support that amendment. She voted against it.

JCT: Was there a specific group or was an informal group?

JB: Solidarity Jersey City was the most prominent group I would say publicly. I don’t organize with them, but I’m kind of friendly with them, and I was part of a meeting with Councilmember Prinz-Arey around that specific issue. So, that was disappointing. And then later that year, the IZO [inclusionary zoning ordinance] vote went the way it did.

In early 2019 before I ran for county committee, Jersey City Together did door knocking in my apartment building. And my neighbors were part of Jersey City Together. And they said, ‘Did you know you live in a controlled building?’ I said, no. ‘Did you know you might be being illegally overcharged?’ I said, no. And they said, ‘Well, come to this meeting, and you can find out some more information.

So, I went to the meeting. I filed the complaint. It took nine months for the city to issue a final determination that I was being overcharged. After that my landlord ignored the city’s final determination, and I was pretty disappointed with the way the city government …  nine months to answer a complaint, which should have been open and shut is just unacceptable.

So, after that I reached out to Councilmember Prinz-Arey, and I asked for help as a constituent. She referred me to an attorney who works for Chase and Lamparello, who’s the firm that represents the county.  [The attorney] Tom Zuppa, took a campaign contribution from my landlord.

When working class rent-controlled tenants go to their city councilmember, they get referred to attorneys who take campaign contributions from their landlord. That is just, you know, that cannot happen.

JCT: You ran again for a county Democratic committee seat. And how did that go?

JB: It was a lot of fun. I announced I was running for city council in February. When I submitted my petition to run for county committee, you got to earn people’s votes, but I was confident that people knew me that I was going to be able to win a spot. Each district has two spots. So, the interesting thing that happened was that the political establishment started campaigning on my block and specifically in my apartment building in force. And so the mayor came to my block a couple of times. And then Amy DeGise came as well and campaigned for the Row A folks. Then on election day the end result was we did not win because of mail-in and provisional ballots, but the day of we did win.

JB: I’m really proud of the organizing we did.

JCT:  Is there anything else that you’ve been doing in terms of local community activism?

JB: I kind of consider my job is being plugged into the community. I work with nurses and healthcare workers who live and work in Hudson County.

JCT: So why should Mira Prinz-Arey be replaced? If you were to give me the top three reasons, what would they be?

JB: It’s not so much her as a person. I think it’s that this administration has had eight years to solve some big problems that we have in Jersey City, and I think they’ve come up short. So, you know, the first thing is fully funding our public schools, which the Board of Ed did submit a fully funded budget. But I think there’s more that the City Council can do. You know, the commitment to have drinking water in our schools … we shouldn’t be like struggling to figure that out in 2021. We shouldn’t be building new schools for non-Jersey City residents. And I’m specifically referencing SciTech City, when a lot of our schools don’t have air conditioning or when a lot of our students don’t have the resources they need. So, if I’m elected to City Council, I would want to partner with the Board of Ed and work with parents and with the teachers’ union to make sure that we don’t have to scramble every year.

JCT: The mayor would say that the school board can set its own levy and that it actually has a bigger budget than the city, and that it’s really the school board’s responsibility to fund these things. In terms of construction, there’s a state agency that’s responsible for that. The mayor would say he’s got his hands full with his own responsibilities. And the responsibility for funding the schools and for school construction are not really city responsibilities. Is he wrong?

JB: Well, I’m not running for mayor. I’m running for City Council. But, if I’m elected to council I’m not interested in blaming the Board of Ed or anybody else but getting what our kids need.

JCT: What else do you think Mira Prinz-Arey has either been on the wrong side of from her own personal perspective, or because she’s part of the administration.

JB: So, two things: One, I want to talk about development and how it’s coming to the west side, and what the future of the west side is going to look like. And so, I think the number one component of that is listening to what residents want and what residents need. And that means that when a politically connected developer wants to put something up, when residents say that doesn’t make sense for our community, we should listen to them.

JCT: Which community development are we talking about just to be more specific?

JB: The old powerhouse gym. So, that is a developer who’s done a little bit of development in other parts of the city, but he also owns a plumbing and sewer maintenance firm that does business with the city. So, that’s all within the pay-to-play. No one broke the law as far as I know, and I’m not alleging that, but the Billy Melms family has donated to the current administration, and it’s just it’s not a good look.

JCT: What else is Councilwoman Prinz-Arey getting wrong by virtue of being part of Team Fulop?

JB: I think what we’re going to be running for is what we’re calling ‘housing justice for all,’ and that has a few different components. One is long-term residents, making sure they can stay in their homes if they’re homeowners… that they’re not being overburdened with homeowners’ taxes while million-dollar condos are being sold Downtown. We want to expand rent control enforcement as well as lower the threshold from six to four units. So, that’s another piece. And I think that in 2021 with the billions of dollars of revenue coming into the city, we can house the homeless. We can house the homeless in Jersey City.

JCT: On rent control, would you support means testing?

JB: No

JCT: So, if I’m making a couple hundred thousand a year, the rent would stay at a controlled level for as long as I want?

JB: Yes, and the reason is we need to also expand low-income housing, which is different from rent control. Low-Income housing is something different, and that is means tested. With the current IZO, anything built from 2021 on is 95% unaffordable. It’s 95% market rate, luxury units. So that doesn’t work for Ward B, which is three-quarters household income under $85,000 a year. But to go back to your original question, no, I don’t believe in means testing for rent control specifically.

JCT: So, you think it’s fair if somebody making $500,000 gets an apartment for a thousand a month, that’s fair?

JB: I think if that unit is protected by a city ordinance and that person applies to get a lease, then they they can live there.

JCT: And they can stay there for as long as they want?

JB: Yeah. I think if someone makes half a million dollars, it’s unlikely they’re going to live in a rent controlled building, but no, I don’t believe in means testing.

JCT: What about the ability to pass down to your family members the leasehold in that rent-controlled department? Would the rent control apply just to the person that had rented it, or would it apply in perpetuity to family members?

JB: That is something I don’t have a lot of familiarity with. I think the concept of rent control is to protect a certain amount of housing at a certain price level. And you know, I don’t take money from developers. I don’t take money from landlords like the administration does. And so I’m not really interested in maximizing their profits. I’m interested in making sure we have a certain threshold of affordable units.

JCT: What are your other priorities?

JB: There is a state-mandated residential development fee and non-residential development fee. I want to get a handle on where that money is going into different affordable housing trust funds. There’s a state fund, and there’s a city fund. I’d like to see what we’re doing with that and do more with it.

San Francisco has passed a real estate sales transfer tax, and that’s something I would fight for. So, let’s go back to your $500,000-a-year income earner who sells their condo in Downtown Jersey City for $2 million to someone else who makes a million dollars. The purpose of that tax would be to take a percentage of the sale, and that would go to the city. So, there’s a lot of wealth being built. There’s a lot of revenue coming into the city, and Duncan Avenue driving down it is like an Olympic sport.

JCT: What about public safety? I think you did mention that you had supported calls to divert $5 million from the public safety budget to other purposes, for instance, recreation centers and social service needs. Where do you stand on that? Now crime is up. The murder rate looks like it’s probably going to hit a high if not a record this year, and people seem to be very concerned about it. The election in New York City seems to indicate that even communities of color are voting for candidates who have a get-tough-on-crime platform. So, what’s your position now on defunding? Is it the same, or has it changed?

JB: I think what we’re doing now is clearly not working, so I think adding hundreds of police officers a year is not making crime decrease. That’s my opinion. I don’t know what the magic number of police officers is for Jersey City, but I do know that people that don’t have jobs and don’t have a place to live, those are the people who kind of get into situations where they’re committing crimes. You know, I spoke to someone yesterday when we were canvassing, and he said that there were some young guys who took the cardboard out of his trash and set it on fire. What he said to me is we need more cops. And I said we have hundreds of more police officers than we did years before, but those young people who burn your trash need a job. They need youth and recreation services. They need affordable housing. People that have good housing and jobs and kids who have something to do, they’re not doing that stuff.

JCT: If you walk around Jersey City, you’ll see help-wanted signs everywhere. Do you think there are issues beyond the availability of jobs and housing that are involved here with the crime problem?

JB: Yeah, I think historic disinvestment in certain parts of the city where people feel hopeless, who feel ‘Why bother applying for that job at Five Guys?’

JCT: What do you think is driving young men to join gangs and commit crimes?

JB: People get Ph.D.s studying that stuff. I think some of the crimes that are committed and some of the activity is survival activity. You know, let’s take Lexington and Bergen, which is on the border of Wards B and Ward F. There have been multiple shootings in the past five years. It’s now a fixed post for the JCPD. To me, some of those crimes are crimes of survival and people are fighting to survive. It’s horrific when people die because of that. It’s horrific. But again, going out and talking to voters, I spoke to a single mother who lives in a building a block away, and she said, even with the cop car on that corner, she doesn’t feel safe letting her child out to play.

JCT: You’ve been endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America. Congratulations. I’d be curious to know if you subscribe to the statement on the Democratic Socialists of America’s website that says that that ‘capitalism is designed by the owning class to exploit the rest of us for their own profit.’

JB: Having helped workers fight for their lives to build unions for 16 years, yes.

JCT: Now, would you call a shopkeeper on Central Avenue, a capitalist?

JB: Yes, in the sense that he wants to build capital and build wealth, but that shopkeeper on Central Avenue is not the enemy the way Target or Walmart or some big corporation like Home Depot owned by Ken Langone, big Trump campaign contributor is. So, yes and no.

JCT: So, yes and no, the shopkeeper would fall into that definition of somebody who looking to exploit the rest of us for his own profit?

JB: So, I’m going to kind of revise my answer and say no because I view small business owners as part of the working class. And I think, you know, whether it’s Central Avenue or West Side Avenue … if you go into these mom-and-pop stores, beauty shops, beauty salons, barbershops, the owners are not kicking back in Bergen County collecting a check. They’re working in their own stores. And so, no.

JCT: I’m just curious at what point does a business convert from being sort of working class blue collar and politically okay to being part of the owning class that now is all about exploiting the rest of us. Where is that transition?

JB: For me, it’s pretty kind of high up the ladder. I really do subscribe to, ‘We are the 99%,’ and the 99% is for me a nurse who earns $50 an hour.

JCT: How are you going to fund your campaign?

JB:  We are funded by 100% grassroots donations. I have been calling friends, friends in the labor movement, friends in the DSA, and other progressive friends to donate. Our campaign has caught some steam. I’m also endorsed by Our Revolution, the legacy Bernie Sanders group. So, yeah, grassroots donations.

JCT: So you will take donations from the labor movement?

JB: If they will give them to me.

JCT: What about a group of small business owners from Ward B? Would you take a donation from them?

JB: I’d have to know more about them. I’d want to talk to the owners first.

JCT: Let me ask you, even though it’s not in Ward B, what’s your position on the Pompidou Center?

JB: I think it’s not a coincidence that it’s going to be next to a Kushner-family-developed, 1,700-unit, no-affordable-housing building. So, I don’t think it’s something that when public schools don’t have air conditioning and drinking water that we need to be spending city revenue on that.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....