Updated 4.12.23 at 9:53 am

Two ordinances drafted by Jersey City Ward E Councilmember James Solomon to create a new local funding source to spur more affordable housing and to give eligible tenants the right to counsel drew a skeptical response from colleagues at Monday night’s council caucus.

The ordinances are scheduled for introduction at Wednesday night's regular council meeting.

To deal with the sizable number of Jersey City residents who struggle to or cannot afford housing, Solomon called for the city to assess fees on the equalized assessed value of land and improvements for all new residential development. The fees would go into effect next year at the rate of 0.5%. That rate would triple to 1.5% for fiscal 2025. Exceptions apply.

Those monies—supplementing similar fees currently paid to the city by non-residential developers—would be used for construction and/or rehabilitation of affordable housing units; acquiring land for affordable housing development; and/or making improvements that indirectly increase the supply of affordable housing.

In addition, a portion of the revenues collected from the fees would be used “to provide affordability assistance to low- and moderate-income households.” Another part would be pay to administer the program, which includes a right-to-counsel service for tenants whose income is less than 80% of the area median income (which in Jersey City would apply to a family of four earning $93,000 a year or less or a single person making $64,000 or less).

Staff attorneys with the Fair Share Housing Center, who briefed the council on the proposed right-to-counsel provision, said that before the council could enact a law to collect and spend development fees, it would have to secure approval from the State Superior Court.

More than 70% of Jersey City's households contain renters, the attorneys said, and they’ve had to keep pace with a 10% rise in rents in the North Jersey metropolitan area between 2021 and 2022. Many were the targets of 14,800 residential evictions filed in Hudson County Superior Court during 2018, they said.

The “deteriorating of a substantial portion of the existing housing stock, insufficient construction of affordable housing units, increasing costs of construction, and the fact that a substantial portion of current Jersey City residents rely on fixed or stagnating incomes” make local tenants particularly vulnerable to eviction and homelessness and subject to landlord retaliation if they report “harmful, uninhabitable conditions” in their apartments, the proposed right-to-counsel ordinance maintains.

These conditions, they say, cry out for Jersey City “to provide access to legal services to tenants who are subject to eviction proceedings.”

The ordinance proposes the city’s creation of a “Division of Tenants’ Right to Counsel” within the Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce to be led by a director, who “shall be an attorney…sufficiently experienced in the relevant areas of law” and who shall “no later than January 1, 2026,” devise a plan to “provide free access to legal services for Jersey City residents” in Superior Court.

The director could choose to circulate a request for proposals to nonprofits to provide legal counsel and/or translators to tenants whose primarily language is not English.

The $180,000-a-year director would be required to submit periodic reports to the mayor and council. He or should would also have to post online a summary of all legal services provided and the dispositions of all cases.

An appointed tenants’ advisory board would assist the director in designing educational and enforcement programs to implement the policies of the division.

FSHC lawyers estimated it would take $4 million a year to service an estimated 8,000 residents, including about 1,500 ending up in court.

Other municipalities in Hudson that currently provide RTC services funded by local development impact fees are Bayonne, Hoboken, and Union City as do “hundreds more” around New Jersey, the lawyers said.

Ward C Councilmember Richard Boggiano said that while he was in favor of the city defending tenants’ rights, the procedure could “open a Pandora’s box” resulting in landlords “getting screwed by tenants not paying rent.” He said he wanted to ensure that any procedure the city may set up “is not a barrier for a landlord to (justifiably) evict someone.”

Similarly, Ward A Councilmember Denise Ridley wanted to know, in the interest of fair play, “Shouldn’t we provide (legal) representation for both tenant and landlord?”

And, she wondered, “how does (the RTC mechanism) help tenants at Portside?”, referring to the Paulus Hook high rises whose tenants have repeatedly complained that the owner—Equity Apartments—is in violation of city rent control rules but who themselves pay monthly rents of $3,000 and more—well above the income eligibility levels needed to qualify for legal assistance from the city as prescribed by the RTC ordinance.

“Maybe we should tweak those income limits,” suggested Councilmember-at-large Amy Degise.

But on the other side of the coin, Degise said, the city also needs to take into consideration smaller landlords such as those who own one- and two-family houses with rental units in Greenville and the Heights. Those individuals could lose their homes if a legitimate eviction case should go against them, she posited. “The law should be fair and equitable for all. ...Maybe some of the money collected from development fees could be applied to “more mediation services” to resolve landlord-tenant disputes as a way of balancing the playing field,” Degise said.

Indeed, said Council President Joyce Watterman, “It might be better to go with an independent body instead of an in-house city lawyer to review (landlord-tenant) cases…. Maybe put out an RFP for a tenant-landlord consultant.”

Solomon cited research by FSHC showing that “nationwide, 80% of landlords have legal representation, while consistently less than 3% of tenants do…leading to evictions on flimsy ground (with) Black women facing the highest filing eviction rate in the country at three times the rate of women of other races.” He opined that the proposed ordinance “creates an equal playing field” for those with less influence and power.

At any rate, the council was advised by its experts that the ordinance proposing to assess residential development impact fees to fund affordable housing would first have to be reviewed by the city Planning Board before the council could tackle it.

And, Watterman said, if that’s the case, it makes sense to table action on the RTC ordinance for now.

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...