by Colin M. and Allie H.
Airbnb is gentrification on steroids. It has impacted cities around the world by taking long term rentals off the market, further increasing the housing crisis in already unaffordable cities. In places like Jersey City, it’s even worse as tourists occupy units in one of America’s most expensive rental markets and contribute little to the local economy as they spend the majority of their money in New York City.
Airbnb was made legal in Jersey City in 2015 with few restrictions. In 2019, a new ordinance proposed reigning in Airbnb by putting a maximum cap on the number of days one could operate an Airbnb, a maximum cap on the number of units one can list on Airbnb, and penalizing anyone who violated this ordinance. Soon after the ordinance was proposed, Hudson County DSA began attending Jersey City Council meetings to push for its passage.
Hudson County DSA’s campaign was run by a group of five organizers from the branch. The organizers held textbanks to try to get branch members to attend these meetings and speak out against the many landlords who opposed the ordinance.
Although Airbnbs’s PR department tried to portray landlords as scrappy locals who just wanted to make some extra cash by renting out their spare bedrooms, the vast majority of the landlords opposing the ordinance were large property owners who would get apartment leases in bulk and operate them as boarding homes and sublets with no permanent residents living onsite. These landlords had no concern for the long-term health of Jersey City neighborhoods as renting units on Airbnb was more profitable for them than otherwise putting vacant units on the rental market.
To support the ordinance, our members prepared a zine, created a website for the campaign, and crafted home-made signs. Branch members handed out the folded zines at laundromats and neighborhood stores to inform JC residents about the ordinance and encourage them to speak at council meetings. This canvassing also helped us connect with neighborhood organizations like the Riverview Neighborhood Association (RNA) who attended city council meetings alongside us.
The council was initially not committed to passing the ordinance and Mayor Steven Fulop did not take a stance. Meanwhile, Airbnb prepared an astroturf campaign, paying outsiders to speak against the ordinance. To help combat their lies, we knew we needed labor’s support and connected with the Hotel Trades Council (HTC) whose members also spoke in favor of the ordinance at council meetings. Airbnb attempted to write them off as the “hotel lobby” despite being an AFL-CIO affiliated union.
The Council meetings for this entire campaign were long, many times going until early in the morning, completely packed with landlord after landlord. However, to our surprise, the council sided with us and passed the ordinance 7-2.
Ballot Initiative and Share Better Coalition
Airbnb landlords started strategizing what their options were against the city’s new ordinance and began a smear campaign to overturn it. 20,000+ signatures were collected under the “Save Our Homes” name. Save Our Homes used scare tactics to convince residents the ordinance would impact them, their housing, and their Section 8 vouchers. Airbnb ramped up spending and hired canvassers for their astroturf campaign. A PR blitz in the local media easily allowed them to collect 20,000 signatures
In July of 2019, DSA began putting pressure on the council not to flip-flop on the ordinance. Rather than rescind their ordinance, the council kicked the decision down to voters with a ballot measure. At this point, DSA joined with Share Better, the main coalition of progressive and labor groups that formed to encourage residents to vote yes on the ballot measure. We asked folks to document where “Vote No” signs were appearing and start tracking online propaganda from Aibnb about the ballot measure. We also challenged landlords directly, holding a protest outside the building of a landlord who was using affordable units as Airbnb rentals.
As our campaign intensified, more Airbnb corporate employees arrived and Airbnb began pumping millions of dollars into their propaganda blitz. Part of their strategy involved smearing DSA and Share Better members as being racist, misogynist, and anti-immigrant for opposing them. However, few Jersey City residents seemed to fall for their “woke” posturing. Despite their war chest, their campaign was failing. By September, Mayor Fulop caved to our pressure campaign and endorsed our coalition. In the fall, we focused on intensive canvassing in key neighborhoods most affected by Airbnb.
On November 5th, 2019 we experienced an overwhelming victory with 70% of voters saying yes to the ordinance. Over five million dollars was wasted by Airbnb on their bitter loss, with an untold amount of dark money from various other in terest groups flowing into the ballot measure. This day also, by sheer coincidence, was the great socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ 164th birthday, giving a very special significance to the win.
Through this campaign we proved that the working class in a small city can land a blow against a billion-dollar tech com pany and their propaganda. Our campaign helped expose the predatory landlords in Jersey City and cohere a large group of renters who firmly stood up against their greed and exploitation. Jersey City is still one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, but our campaign provided a glimpse of how tenants can use their collective power to fight back.
Echoes of this campaign are still heard in current organizing around housing justice in North Jersey. Three years later, or ganizers in the chapter point to this campaign as a reason they learned about DSA’s work. This year, our chapter contin ues to support two housing justice campaigns with efforts to further organize tenants and to fight for a Right to Counsel in Jersey City.
If you want to get involved in building tenant power in North Jersey and fight back against landlords, reach out to our Housing Justice Working group or the Right to Counsel campaign!
North NJ DSA Housing Justice Working Group Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
North NJ DSA Housing Justice Working Group Site: https://north.dsanj.org/Housing-Justice/
Right to Counsel Email: email@example.com
Right to Counsel Campaign Site: https://righttocounseljc.org/