by Rory P.
Landlords are removing New Jersey ans from their homes at the highest rate since the pandemic began. In re sponse, the North New Jersey Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NNJDSA) is organizing a campaign to pass a “Right to Counsel” (RTC) ordinance in Jersey City.
RTC refers to government policy that funds free legal representation for peo ple at risk of losing their homes. Some times that risk is due to eviction filing, a landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs, harassment or discrimination by a landlord, or any circumstance that may put tenants at risk of being forced to move.
The RTC legislation advocated for by NNJDSA and its coalition partners is modeled after an ordinance passed by the New York City Council in 2017 that resulted in a 30% decline in eviction filings. Before the ordinance was passed, one percent of tenants facing eviction had legal representation in housing court. Now, 74% have RTC representation, and 84% of those with representation stay in their homes.
“It’s simple. We want to give free lawyers to people at risk of losing their homes. Anyone who gets served a notice of eviction, give them a law yer,” said Sarah Levine, an organizer in NNJDSA’s Jersey City branch. “Moving is expensive and people don’t have other opportunities. To give them an attorney for free to compel the landlord to bring the building up to code is a key way to make sure people don’t become houseless.”
The RTC ordinance promoted by NNJDSA would be more inclusive and accessible than the RTC implementations in NYC, Connecticut, the City of Newark and elsewhere. NNJDSA supports a version that free of eligibility criteria, as opposed to means-tested policies that exclude large swaths of people.
The teeth of the reform will be in its funding structure. Organizers intend the ordinance to 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.
Finally, a RTC ordinance should allow for affirmative cases, which means tenants would be able to use their RTC-funded lawyer to seek judgment against a landlord in the event they fail to provide necessary repairs and services that can render a home uninhabitable. In other RTC programs, tenants receive free representation only as defendants.
The housing crisis is reaching a fever pitch as landlords in New Jersey are raising rents at a higher rate than employers are raising incomes. The $750 million rental and utility assistance pro gram passed in 2021 was designed to be difficult to obtain for those in most need and temporary for those who receive it. About 58,000 evictions filings were made in the first seven months of 2022, double the number is the same period last year. Meanwhile, those limited rental assistance funds are running dry. Making matters worse, courts have a backlog of more than 31,000 tenancy cases.
“It’s so expensive to live here. People are selling their homes and others are being evicted,” said Isaac Jimenez, co chair of the NNJDSA Hudson County branch. “RTC speaks to the moment we’re in. While there are many crises stacked on top of one another right now, the one that allows us to organize for the rest is housing. Keeping folks where they are is where we start. Developers are taking advantage by upscaling and kicking people out. It’s happening everywhere.”
“This campaign really important to working-class people, who are beginning to understand housing as a human right.” said Jimenez. “This is a form of politics that speaks to the material needs of our lives, unlike what the Democrats are doing.”
While a successful RTC campaign would achieve material gains for working-class people, the journey to that point will build productive and meaningful relationships both within the chapter and between organizations.
“RTC has been really great for growing the chapter. It’s a broad-coalition campaign that we need to put our chapter on the map, especially in off-election cycles,” said Jimenez. “It’s a great way to build trust.”