New rule 'deconstruction of rent control' in Newark, advocates say

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on March 07, 2017

NEWARK -- Despite pushback from residents, the Newark City Council on Tuesday approved changing the rules that allow landlords to hike rents in vacant rent-controlled apartments. 

The changes, in part, lower the bar for how much a landlord must invest in rehabilitating a vacant unit to raise rents up to 20 percent.

"This is essentially amounting to piece by piece deconstruction of rent control," said Carl Hill, a member of New Jersey Tenants Association and Newark Tenants United. "We're really disappointed."

Hill and about 20 other residents and tenant advocates expressed their opposition to the changes on Tuesday, concerned that landlords would be encouraged to push people out of their apartments to raise rents. 

"Already it is too expensive to live here," said Victor Monterrosa, an organizer with the HUD Tenants Coalition. "This is about profit, this is about landlords and developers. Leave our rent control ordinance alone." 

The changes amend the city's 2014 ordinance that required a landlord spend $5,000 multiplied by the number of rooms in a vacant unit to rehabilitate the residence in order raise rent by a maximum of 20 percent.

The revised ordinance reduces that threshold and allows landlords who spend eight months worth of a unit's rent to ask for up a 20 percent increase in rent. Rehabilitation work worth six months of rent would allow a 15 percent increase and work worth four months of rent would allow a 10 percent bump.

South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James said the changes strengthened protections for tenants against slumlords and poor maintenance on buildings. He dismissed concerns that renters would be pushed out. 

"If you look at Newark's history, we've been maligned as one of the worst places to live. We can't run a city on what they think might happen, the worst case scenario," he said last week. "This does not touch any current residents."

The amended ordinance defines the type of work a landlord must perform on an empty unit to qualify for a rent increase and eliminates the ability for landlords to receive credit for work and materials they provide themselves. The changes also redirect any appeals from Rent Control Board decision to Superior Court instead of the City Council.

"Most of you in this room are disappointed at the verdict," Council President Mildred Crump said. "I see it as a new opportunity for us to now to start from square one ... and develop a piece of legislation that will last in perpetuity."

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins abstained from the vote and said there was still room to reach a compromise and strengthen tenant protections.

"There is still room to negotiate ... I always said it was too one sided and now it's going to the other side," she said.

But she cautioned that the ordinance was not about gentrification.

"Stop making people think that this is automatically going to shoot their rent up because it's not. This resolution has nothing to do with gentrification. We have enough room (in the city)," she said. 

Still residents worried landlords would be incentivized to kick them out and fall further behind on badly-needed repairs. 

"This is not fair, you are asking for money to fill the pockets of people who do no repairs, who do absolutely nothing," said renter Melody Diouf, who said she's been bitten by mice twice in her rent-controlled apartment. "People are suffering."

The ordinance must be signed by Mayor Ras Baraka before it takes effect.

Monterossa said he's organized a petition on change.org asking the city to reject it.

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