by Isaac Jiménez, New Jersey Monitor
April 14, 2023
As cities nationwide see staggering housing prices and tenants priced out of metro regions, workers are fighting back.
This week in Jersey City, residents spent five hours at a council meeting to demand that city officials give tenants a universal right to counsel to protect them from eviction, displacement, and neglect from landlords. This means if a tenant needs legal defense and can’t afford it, one will be afforded to them, like in criminal proceedings.
Much of the council struggles to understand the gravity of the housing crisis, even after a DSA-led coalition spelled it out for them. A media report on the council’s initial reaction to the plan suggests they do not understand how to protect tenants from eviction and hold all landlords accountable.
For residents in Jersey City — or any municipality in New Jersey — to see true housing justice, tenants’ rights need to be universal in theory and in practice. In New Jersey, you need good cause to evict a tenant. We’re now pushing for this to be universally administered.
This is not a fight seen in Jersey City alone; everyone is feeling the squeeze. This week, Rutgers University faculty members, who have worked nearly a year under an expired contract, began a strike to demand job security, equal pay for equal work, and a living wage. Some of the issues we’re hearing on the Rutgers picket lines are the same we’re experiencing in Jersey City: workers struggling to pay for basic necessities like rent in a state with an ever-increasing cost of living.
A version of the Jersey City right-to-counsel ordinance proposed by council members aligned with Mayor Steven Fulop — a newly announced candidate for governor in 2025 —would protect just those making under $64,000. But that would mean even some public school teachers struggling to have rent control enforced in their building wouldn’t qualify. For any right to be a right, it can’t bank on means tests that spend more energy on gatekeeping aid than administering it.
Some council members suggested that tenants’ right to counsel would harm landlords from “justifiably” evicting someone, or that we should provide guaranteed counsel for landlords. While we may disagree on the politics here — I and others say housing is a human right and there are no just evictions — the right to counsel is intended to change the existing power imbalance. The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel found that, on average, 80% of landlords are represented in housing court, while only 3% of tenants are. When tenants get representation, they get more time and money, and can avoid an eviction record, as lawyers often successfully negotiate settlements with landlords.Jersey City residents lobby for a right to counsel at the city’s April 12 council meeting. (Photo by Nicolas Wolfgang Arango)
The legislation proposed by the Right to Counsel JC coalition — legislation that could see final approval next month if enough council members vote in favor — would defend tenants at Portside Towers, a building on Jersey City’s waterfront whose landlord wrongly claims is not rent-controlled. This version of the ordinance would be universal, for all tenants, and cover proceedings like taking a landlord to court for rent control violations. Many Portside tenants earn significant incomes, yes, but they are being failed by the current city’s tenant-landlord office. The reason council members would attempt to means test tenants’ right to counsel is becoming clear: They don’t want to target landlords of luxury rentals that are violating tenants’ rights. We should question whether this is because many of their donations are from the developers that build these rentals.
A right to counsel does not have to be cost-prohibitive. New Jersey towns and cities could use federal and state funds that have restrictions like means tests, fund the “unqualified” themselves, and still save money in the end. Universal programs administered by local governments can fund the portions that development fees can’t, and in the end, would save governments a lot of money in building shelters, health care, foster care, and other social safety net services. This sets New Jersey on a path to other important universal programs in the future, like statewide single-payer health care.
As workers across New Jersey demand higher wages, we here in Jersey City are demanding fair housing practices and, by extension, lower rent! When landlords know tenants have a right to counsel, eviction filings go down altogether. It’s as if many evictions aren’t justified after all. With a deep court backlog, tenants often call it quits and scatter. A right to counsel in every New Jersey municipality experiencing increases in both rent and luxury housing development should look to Jersey City at this moment. We are bargaining for the common good, as one working class, one union in one fight.
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