by Rory P
Six months into the campaign for tenants’ right to counsel in Jersey City, nearly one hundred people convened at the Jersey City Theatre Center for a town hall organized by the the North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America (NNJDSA) to share tenant stories and examine the issue at hand – whether tenants should have free legal representation to stand up for themselves in court.The answer from the crowd of organizers, tenants, and coalition partners was affirmative and resounding.
The right to counsel (RTC) ordinance, advocated by NNJDSA’s Hudson County branch and its coalition partners, would provide free legal representation to all tenants in Jersey City, where 72% of people rent their homes, the rents of which landlords have raised by about 50% from 2021 to 2022. The ordinance will be funded through a tax or fee on landlords and development rather than the general budget, which comes from a property tax levy or federal grants.
“Let’s make sure the people responsible for the housing crisis are the ones who pay for this,” said Jake Ephros, co-chair of the campaign. “The bill for a just right-to-counsel ordinance should be footed by developers,rather than pinning it all on the average taxpayer.”
Campaign volunteers have been canvassing every neighborhood of Jersey City for months, gathering hundreds of signatures intended to demonstrate to the political establishment and the Jersey City Council specifically that mass support for such a policy exists among residents.
After countless meetings and hours spent strategizing, phone banking, and canvassing, NNJDSA is now in position to pack a theater and chart a path forward with coalition partners and other organizers.
Coalition partners who shared their organizing stories included Make the Road NJ, an Elizabeth-based immigrant rights organization, and members of the Portside Tenants Union, which represents tenants of Portside Towers and has been lobbying the Jersey City Council to enforce rent control laws.
“A synergy formed, a focus on law and regulation, and what we had the ability to change by working together.That’s been our fighting point,” said Jess, a tenant-organizer at Portside Tenants Union who, along with other tenants in the building, has seen substantial rent hikes and neglected essential services in recent years. “We’re all aligned in that. It all went back to issues – the water intrusion, the elevators, the lack of safety. It was empowering. Now I’m excited to be here to help others in the same situation.”
Many others’ stories distilled a collective experience of anxiety and powerlessness, a common thread among the mostly working class attendees.
“I come into my apartment and see eviction notices. That’s intimidation, to be honest. It makes me feel uncomfortable,” said John Acosta, who moved from the Bronx to Jersey City last year. “If all we’re doing is building luxury apartments, where are the rest of us going to live? I don’t want this for my daughter.”
“As democratic socialists, we believe housing is a human right and shouldn’t be a commodity or speculative asset,” said Julia Tache, chair of the campaign’s media and communications subcommittee. “The for-profit housing system is the root cause of the issues we are facing today. The city works for developers and landlords, not everyday, working class people. We need to redistribute power to the renters and it starts with strong tenant protections like RTC.”
“A union is a group of workers who fight harder than the boss,” said Joel Brooks, a union organizer, NNJDSA member, and 2021 candidate for Jersey City Council. “It would be great to see a group of tenants who fight harder than the landlords here in Jersey City.”
The RTC campaign is issuing a call to action for supporters to attend a February 8 city council meeting. Readers interested in joining the Right to Counsel Campaign can contact: