Housing advocacy group challenges changes to Newark’s rent control ordinance

Posted Oct 17, 2019

Newark council members recently repealed a portion of an ordinance that allowed them to hear appeals of rent control decisions, drawing criticism and a lawsuit from a housing group.

A Newark official says the council wasn’t equipped to make such rulings.

Homes for All Newark said 1,800 signatures were collected to initiate the council to vote on the 2017 amendment that gave renters and landlords the option to appeal rent control decisions either before the Superior Court or the council. Before the council approved the measure about two years ago, rent control decisions could only be appealed in court.

The group wanted landlords and tenants to have the option to appeal rent control decisions to the council because they said it was more cost-effective than having to go to court and hire an attorney.

But in August this year, the council stripped itself of the ability to hear those appeals. John Goldstein, an activist with the housing group, said the council couldn’t repeal an amendment that was initiated by voters.

The only way the amendment could be repealed, he said, was by waiting three years after it was adopted or by putting it on a ballot.

“The city council, when it gets the petitions, has the option of either passing something or sending it to the voters," Goldstein told NJ Advance Media. “So if they weren’t subject to the three-year ban they would always pass what they didn’t like and then change it the next month.”

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” he added.

Homes For All Newark filed a civil complaint Oct. 4 in Superior Court against the city, the municipal clerk, Mayor Ras Baraka and the council.

City officials have said about 78 percent of Newarkers are renters.

The city’s rent control board hears complaints from tenants, including those who claim their rent was increased too much. Landlords can also go to the rent control board when they want to increase rent after making improvements to their properties.

Newark city attorney Kenyatta Stewart said the council was within its rights to repeal the 2017 amendment since voters then didn’t approve the measure by way of a referendum on a ballot, even though the signatures led council to act.

The council repealed its 2017 decision to hear rent control decisions because it wasn’t equipped to make rulings on the topic, Stewart added.

“They would prefer members of the community to go with the Superior Court instead of the council because in all actuality the council doesn’t have the background and training to hear these,” Stewart told NJ Advance Media.

Stewart said three appeals went before the council since the new rule was put in place and each case was made by landlords, not tenants. What’s more, he said, people appealing rent control decisions in Superior Court can choose to represent themselves there too without an attorney, to reduce their costs.

Renee Steinhagen, which is representing Homes For All Newark and other individual residents in the lawsuit, said the group also asked the city to expand a program that gives free legal representation to low-income residents who are facing eviction.

The housing advocacy group proposed a settlement with the city after it filed suit asking the city to expand that right-to counsel program to people who want to make rent control appeal, Goldstein said. The group, he added, did not hear back from the city when it made the request.

The right-to-counsel program was slow to start when it was first created, but the city contracted with Essex-Newark Legal Services for $150,000 in June.

Khabirah Myers, an attorney who was hired to coordinate the city’s program, also provides legal representation for eviction cases, Stewart said. McCarter & English also created one fellowship position to provide the same services, although it’s separate from the city’s program.

Stewart, Newark’s city attorney, added that the city will open requests for proposals for both private and nonprofit groups soon to expand the program.

The program, even without expanding to include rent control decisions, is a huge undertaking in a city where research shows 22 evictions were filed for every 100 rentals in Newark 2016.

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