Activists want public vote on alternate rent control ordinance
Taking a lesson from the children’s story about the little engine that could, rent control advocates who opposed to changes made by the City Council late last year are seeking to put the matter on the ballot in November.
The City Council passed an ordinance last November that would abolish rent control once current residents moved out of a currently rent controlled apartment. Opponents of the measure sought to put the matter on referendum several times earlier this year, but failed to meet the legal requirements for proper notice on petitions or to obtain the minimum requirement of signatures.
Saying that they have a new lease on life, the rent control advocates are taking a different approach and will seek to propose their own ordinance.
“This is similar to a referendum in that it would put this up to a public vote,” said Bayonne City Clerk Robert Sloan. “But in this case, they would have to draft their own ordinance.”
This ordinance would be presented to the City Council, and then if the group has enough valid signatures, it would go on the ballot in November.
But the current ordinance would remain in effect until the new ordinance is passed by the public vote in November.
“Let the people decide, not paid politicians,” said Douglas Wasama, chairman of Keep Bayonne Rent Control. “We are currently circulating petitions asking registered voters in town to agree to allow all of the people of Bayonne to make the final decision on this matter. That’s the democratic way.”
Previous attempts failed
In their last effort in March, the Bayonne Tenants Organization came up about 70 signatures short during their drive to put the question up for a public vote. That was the second attempt by the group to reverse a City Council move from last November.
The group submitted signatures in December, but these were invalidated because of a technicality. The group failed to provide identification for the purpose on the top of each page so that those signing the petition were clear on what the petition was for.
In February, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Hector Velazquez ruled in favor of the city of Bayonne, saying that petitions filed to overturn the changes to the city’s rent control ordinance were invalid. But the group got an additional 14 days to correct the deficiencies. The group collected 1,025 signatures. They needed 845 to get the question put on the ballot. But City Clerk Robert Sloan determined that only 772 were valid signatures, thus making the petition invalid.
The City Council rejected an even bigger change for rent control in July 2011 after residents complained that it was too arbitrary. Under the original proposal, a landlord could have opted out of rent control simply by doing upgrades to his or her property. This would not have protected existing tenants. The second ordinance, which was approved last November, protected existing residents, but many residents feared they might face intimidation by landlords to move out.
‘Rent control affects everyone’
Property owners and some real estate representatives say rent control is one of the barriers that keeps property owners from upgrading their facilities. City officials agreed.
There are currently just fewer than 400 rent controlled units throughout the city. There are no income requirements or other criteria for living in a rent-controlled apartment, although many of those who do live in them currently would otherwise qualify for low-income housing. Unfortunately, there is a waiting list for the low-income housing.
Modern rent control laws have their roots in the Civil Rights movement and were instituted in many cities in the 1970s, along with other social reform programs, such as affirmative action. New Jersey is one of four states that give communities a local option to pass rent control laws. About 100 cities in the state still have some version of rent control, although it is seen as something being phased out in modern times.
“We are pursuing this petition drive under the initiative process provided by state law,” Wasama said. “When we accumulate a sufficient number of signatures from qualified voters, the people will be allowed to determine the outcome of this extremely important public question for themselves, and overturn the awful and callous action of the City Council.”
Wasama went on to say that rent control in a city like Bayonne affects everyone, not just tenants.
“Without rent control, there will be a terrible ripple effect throughout the community,” he said. “The result would be a severe negative impact on both businesses and even property owners, deepening the economic recession and high unemployment rates that our city already faces.” Needing to collect signatures by the end of July, Wasama urged the public to sign this initiative when approached by their neighbors circulating the petition.
“By signing to allow this matter to be placed on the ballot, people will be helping to keep Bayonne’s future economically viable, while showing their support for keeping Bayonne a livable and family-oriented community. This can only be accomplished by exercising our right to participate in the democratic process during this presidential election year,” Wasama said.