North NJ DSA

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.”

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