On October 13, Ward E Councilman James Solomon sat down with us for an interview covering everything from traffic safety to ethics reform.
JCT: James, thanks so much for your time, and let’s jump right in. Could you just tell our readers a little bit about your background for those who don’t know you?
JS: Happy to. I moved to Jersey City in 2013 with my now-partner, Gabby, and we have two beautiful daughters, Camila Nicole and Corinne Maria, and we will be announcing later today, we’re having a third daughter.
JS: It’s amazing. We’re very excited: three girls.
JCT: What was your work and educational background prior to coming to Jersey City?
JS: So, I was really focused on city government. After I went to college and graduated with a B.A. in public policy and then went to work in St. Louis and Chicago as a public school teacher. I worked for a legal aid organization and developed a real interest in city government and city policy. So, I got a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy school, and then after that, I worked for mayor Menino in Boston for a year and a half before moving to Jersey City. And then I started to teach as an adjunct professor teaching urban policy and politics. And then I got sick for roughly a year and then got better and then got involved in local politics.
JCT: Great. and that was a cancer that you were diagnosed with.
JS: I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was diagnosed right after my honeymoon and it was a very jarring, life-altering experience. I was blessed to have incredible medical care, and I’m in full remission. It’s now been nearly six years … and it really kind of led me to decide that I really wanted to give back to Jersey City because the city really did kind of help me through that process.
JCT: You’ve been Councilman for Ward E. What are you most proud of having done during your tenure?
JS: Ending the era of a developer-planned downtown. I think in the four years before I was in office, there were 39 tax breaks given out. And I think developers kind of felt like they could just propose a project … and then get it approved. And I think that really changed. And, so there’ve been projects that I’ve been proud to push forward and support, ones that are going to deliver a new elementary school, a new homeless shelter, a new light rail station. But we’re setting the terms of those debates and conversations. And we’re really saying to developers what we need Downtown versus the other way around. And I think we have a great city planning team that’s different than the one from before I was in office. And I think they’re an incredible asset to the city, and I’ve been really proud to partner with them on this work to really make sure that development works for residents here, not for developers.
JCT: Anything else besides the development process?
JS: I’m really proud of the transformation of our streets to be much safer. You know, four years ago there were zero protected bike lanes Downtown. Now there are miles. We’ve added these stop signs at Jersey Avenue, which drops serious accidents by 95 percent. We put safety improvements on different intersections, different corners. Grand Street is much safer … and I know that we have plans already in place … for the other dangerous streets Downtown: Columbus, Marin and Newark Avenue.
And then I think schools. … I walked in four years ago and sort of said, okay, we built these 10, 20,000 units of housing. Our population grew 20,000 between the last two censuses. What’s the plan on where these kids are going to go to school, and you walk in and learn that there is no plan. … So, we worked, and we’re going to get the new elementary school at Laurel and Sandalwood [Laurel and Sandalwsood Courts] with 400 seats. And then my goal in the second term is another elementary school north of the Holland tunnel. So we can really comprehensively build a school infrastructure that Downtown needs to match all the population growth.
JCT: What do you think the greatest needs are in Ward E?
JS: I’ll start with affordability. You know, 50 percent of residents in Jersey City as a whole pay too much on their rent. And there’s a ton of folks, whether there be born-and-raised folks in Jersey City or maybe artists who moved here 20 years ago who feel the price pressures as rents go up. … You don’t want to over promise what a ward council person can deliver, but I think that we strengthen tenant protections. … And then I think in the next term I want to really work on tripling the number of affordable housing units built down here. I think that is huge.
And then I think connected [to affordable housing], the second big thing I would say [Ward E needs] is … infrastructure. … schools, … roads and sewers … open space. So, to me, those are the top two issues, you know, affordability and then infrastructure for a livable community.
JCT: What about quality of life? I think there’s a perception that quality of life Downtown has deteriorated with more density, more traffic. First of all, do you think it’s a problem? And if so, what do you think should be done about?
JS: I do think it’s a problem. …So, let’s talk traffic for a second. There’s a combination of issues here. You’ve got Covid, you’ve got the new Jersey Avenue bridge, you’ve got the proliferation of apps that direct traffic onto Downtown streets. … So, I am a thousand percent committed to revising our traffic rules to basically prevent cars from using Downtown as a pass through to the Holland Tunnel. No community would accept being turned into a highway. … We’ve taken steps forward to put all the rules into place, but it’ll take a couple of months to do that. But I’m committed to putting those rules into place as is the mayor.
Trash is [another] huge one for me. I think our trash collection company, Regional, provides poor service at an extremely high price. We don’t do a great job of collecting trash from street trash cans. So we put together … a series of steps to address trash down here: put trash cans in every corner, daily pickups, fire Regional because they don’t do a good job. And then ensure that everyone puts out their trash in covered the containers because when we put it out in open bins, a combination of wind and actually trash collection just actually spews more trash into the streets than you started with in the beginning.
JCT: Would you support more parking enforcement Downtown?
JCT: What would be your three top legislative priorities for your next term?
JS: One is tripling the number of affordable housing units built Downtown. So, basically … going through a very robust community planning-driven process to look at the spots … where Downtown really can build units that people can afford.
That’s one. Two, ethics reform. I think Jersey City clearly has concerns with ethics. You know, our school board president was indicted by three separate law enforcement agencies. We’ve had a number of city employees arrested, and we have not built a long-term culture of ethical government that really eliminates these types of betrayals of the public trust. And, so I think do a number of things. … We have an ethical standards board that is … non-functional and that needs to be reformed and actually has subpoena power. It could be a really important ethical tool. Just to give you an example, in New York City, an independent ethics investigation just discovered Mayor DeBlasio was using city resources for his personal and political needs. That’s unacceptable, but we don’t have a similar investigatory body at Jersey City that could actually do that type of investigation or at least that type of report. So, I think ethics reform is crucial.
Third, I think we need more open space on the waterfront. That’s where the bulk of the development has occurred. And if you look at any analysis, the amount of people compared to the amount of green space is just way out of whack. And everybody I’ve talked to who lives in Powerhouse or Paulus Hook says we need more open space. So, we can get creative and look at Hoboken’s Pier C as an option for something we could potentially build down there.
Those are, I think the three top priorities legislatively for a second term.
JCT: On affordability. You’ve made that one of your biggest priorities, I guess the first question is given that the Downtown is so gentrified, is affordability an issue for the majority of residents Downtown, or is this sort of an issue that affects a small but important part of the Downtown in your perception?
JS: Yeah, I think it’s important to acknowledge. I think it affects a broad swath of Downtown in different ways. You have long-term residents who have lived here their whole lives … who want to remain in the community that they helped build and make a great place. And you don’t know the exact percentage there, but I think it’s potentially a couple of thousand … in rent-controlled buildings. … and those are tenants whose rights are oftentimes violated by landlords. … We’ve gone door to door to try to make sure that they know what their rights are and [that] they can stay. You’ve got [other] residents who want to stay in the Downtown. They, they may not be … let me say it this way: Large increases in their rent make a difference in their bottom line and that may force them out. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re low income, but it means that they’ve been in this community for a long time. Maybe they’re long-term artists, and they really want to stay. So, obviously a lot of the new development of Downtown is geared towards the luxury rentals, high rents, and the folks living in those buildings are not in dire financial straits. But, I think it’s a larger swath than they give credence to. … I don’t think anyone could promise to make Downtown an affordable place, right? It is part of the New York City housing market; You can’t stop that. But, what you can do is strengthen tenant protection so the tenants who are currently here aren’t displaced. You can guarantee more units in new developments are affordable, whether that’s inclusionary zoning, or city-owned land that we’re focusing and guaranteeing to be affordable. Those are the types of things that we just have to do more of. And we can’t shy away. We can’t let the fact that you can’t create a perfect solution stop me or anyone else from actually doing the things that we do have control over.
JCT: A few years ago. There was a proposal to put a project on Bright Street that was going to be micro units which would have essentially doubled what the density had been on that block. And recently the New York Times did an article that found that suggested that the best way to create more affordable housing was to build denser and higher. Is that something that you think is applicable to Downtown? Or are we just talking about adding affordable units to the same types of buildings with the same densities?
JS: Yeah. I think you have to have an all-of-the-above strategy to address housing. And, I think to be clear, Downtown has added more housing units than I think any comparable neighborhood in the New York Metro region, potentially in the Northeast. I mean the amount of development that we’ve seen here is remarkable. There’s maybe an idea that there’s no development too big, and I don’t subscribe to that because we’re doing more than our fair share in adding housing supply. But, be clear we’re part of the broader New York region. We can’t build the number of homes needed that New York City should be building. We ourselves cannot do that. So, I think it’s really important that when we build, we make sure that a percentage of everything we build is guaranteed as affordable. Does that mean make sure to make projects take a little longer? Yes, it does. And, I think that that’s a worthy tradeoff because it helps keep the community that we want here. My vision is not a downtown where developers get to build whatever they want whenever they want. My vision is a community that retains as much as possible its diversity.
JCT: What do you think the Fulop administration has done right in the four years you’ve been a councilman?
JS: I’ll give you three. The first is the Airbnb legislation. The mayor started his work on that in 2019, I sort of joined in as they were doing some of the legislative process, then I drafted and wrote a series of amendments where we can put them into the bill that I think … struck the right balance of allowing an individual homeowner to have an Airbnb but not allowing somebody to come in and rent a hundred units. … And having those laws in place is going to be really, really helpful to ensuring that the person [you’re] living next to is your neighbor, and it’s not a hotel.
I think the vision on bike lanes is exactly the right approach. I think the … traffic safety measures we’ve put in place have made a big difference in people’s lives.
And then the third is … the city planning, I think it is a great city planning team. They sort of came together in 2018, 2019 when director Cialone became head of HEDC [Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce] and Director Marione head of planning. I don’t agree with them a hundred percent of the time. We’ve had our disagreements, but they’re professionals, they’re thoughtful, they’re smart, and they’re exactly the type of people you want kind of across the table from the developers who are coming in.
JCT: What do you think the administration has done wrong in your first term?
JS: I’ll start with the water tax. First, it’s a flat tax; it harms working families. Second, it was done with zero transparency in the dead of night. Nobody knew about it, and even by their own admission, it wasn’t calculated properly. If you’re going to make a major change to the way the city budgets … there should have been reports, there should have been discussion, there should have been votes, there should have been a real public engagement here. And none of that happened.
I think … I’ve mentioned affordability too, right? I think the inclusionary zoning ordinance wasn’t as strong as it needed to be. … I think there’s nuance here, but at the end of the day, too many loopholes. You shouldn’t have a bill to let you get out of an affordable housing requirement to build a parking space. That’s just not the purpose of the affordable housing inclusionary zoning ordinance. And, obviously it was thrown out [by a court], and now we got to work on drafting a new version that closes some of those loopholes.
JCT: After George Floyd was murdered you, and I think it was Councilman Lavarro proposed cutting the police budget. How do you feel about that now?
JS: Let us be clear about what we proposed. We literally had a spreadsheet. We proposed taking the savings from retirements and putting it into social services. And, what I said … in June of 2020 during the height of the protests and Black Lives Matter kind of discussion, I said, look, I’m not going to focus on slogans. I’m going to focus on what Jersey City needs, and it needs a strong police force. … I’ve always believed that, but you also need to have a holistic solution that addresses the root causes of violence. And as a city, we don’t do that, we don’t do that nearly to the extent that we need to. And, so the proposal was, hey, take the savings from retirements, put it into the rec department that was experiencing a 40 percent cut that year, put it into teen mentoring, put it into youth jobs. Put it into things that are proven to reduce violence in the long run, because the whole point is to reduce violence. And I don’t think you do it with an either/or strategy, you do it with a holistic strategy.
JCT: Why would Jake Hudnut be the wrong choice for Ward E?
JS: I think at the core of this race is, do we want to go back to the old way of development and planning in Downtown? We had this debate over this in 107 Morgan Street. The developer wanted to get out of his obligation, specifically a requirement to make 10 percent of the units affordable while building more. And my opponent said that was a good thing. To me, that is the wrong approach. It’s an approach that’s developer driven and not community driven. And, so I don’t want to go back to that. I think we’ve made real progress in saying, look, developers, if you have to build, you have to build according to our needs and our interests. You have to build a school, a homeless shelter, a light rail station. You have to build affordable homes. And, I think going back to this system in which developers donate to the campaigns — and my opponent four years ago promised not to take developer dollars, and now he’s taken tens of thousands of dollars from them — you go back to the system where developers fund the campaigns, and then they get to negotiate against the very people they funded. I think that’s a mistake for Downtown, and it’s not where we need to go.
JCT: Where has your funding come from?
JS: So, we’re really proud. We’ve had over a thousand donors from Jersey City; median donation is $50. The majority of the funds are coming from folks in Jersey City. And then I promise not to take donations from Jersey City real estate developers. It was a promise I made four years ago, a promise I stuck to.