Mayoral Candidates Weigh-In on Rent Control and the Displacement Crisis
Rent Control, Affordable Housing and Displacement:
Where Do Hoboken’s Top Mayoral Candidates Stand?
By Nancy Colasurdo
I don’t think I can afford to let it fall through the cracks because this impacts our identity as a city. This is right up there with education and climate change as the most pressing issues/challenges facing Hoboken. –Ravi Bhalla
There’s something to be said about rent control and its ability to keep a community together and inspire neighborhoods and people that care about the streets outside and care about Hoboken as a whole. –Michael Defusco
Before I was on the council, I had no concept of displacement. It wasn’t ever part of my life. Now when you see it happening to people it puts a completely different perspective and understanding on it. –Jen Giattino
It pains me to know how many people have moved out. It’s definitely tragic. –Anthony Romano
As each shiny new building pops up in Hoboken, it brings out a range of reactions in residents. People look around with a sense of wonder. Perhaps they see promise. They may feel pride.
Or maybe a change in the landscape makes them nervous.
Count among the latter the city’s many residents who are in the process of being displaced or those who simply see the polish and sparkle and feel a foot bearing down on their neck. Are they next? In all the construction and development, will they be forced out of the place they’ve known as home for decades?
Among the array of issues facing Hoboken’s next mayor – to be decided on Nov. 7 — is what to do about the affordable housing shortage, the stigma of rent control, and the too frequent displacement of long-time residents. Following are the highlights of in-person interviews with the four leading candidates for mayor, all conducted in their respective headquarters, on these vital issues.
Each candidate was asked his or her personal feelings on rent control, affordable housing, and displacement and to explain what they would do about these issues as mayor. Organic dialogue flowed from there. Ideally voters will get a feel for the human beings behind the platforms and an insight into the scope of their vision for Hoboken.
Councilman Bhalla, whose background as an attorney includes advocating for tenants in Union City and representing the rent leveling board in Hoboken, is clear the next mayor and the next city council have to “identify a means in which to maintain Hoboken affordable housing stock.”
Bhalla does not think the 10 percent allotment mandated by Hoboken’s 2012 affordable housing ordinance (10 percent of units in new developments must be affordable except for projects with 10 or fewer units) is going to solve the problem.
“Here’s the reason why,” Bhalla says. “Right now from an urban planning standpoint we’re trying to control residential development, so any construction that’s residential, if we have a policy that they make 10 percent affordable or 15 percent or 20 percent or whatever the number is, if the overarching policy is to limit the number of buildings that want to be residential … it’s to control residential development to begin with. So while the allotments don’t hurt, it’s not going to by any means solve the affordable housing problem.”
What Bhalla is hearing as he’s knocking on doors this campaign season is that many residents of diverse income levels are expressing concern that it’s becoming too expensive to live in Hoboken.
“Maybe crisis is a fair description or characterization of what it is,” Bhalla says. “I don’t want Hoboken to be a place where only the uber wealthy can live. My concern is that we might be pitching in that direction … The next mayor and council have to identify proactive measures to resist against that trend.”
So the logical question is: how?
“I think we need to take the approach theoretically similar to the approach we take when we look at trying to increase open space, trying to [increase] flood remediation,” Bhalla says, pointing to federal and state funding sources used. “In all those areas what you see is, the bottom line is, who’s going to pay for it? It all comes down to money.
“I would think we should take a similar approach to affordable housing. There are opportunities to work with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency, for example, to find a developer that can develop affordable housing that’s financed through low-interest loans that the state of New Jersey can provide. That’s how we get parks. Why can’t we finance affordable housing in a similar way? But now we’re not talking about 10 units, we’re talking about 300 units.”
Bhalla added, “I’m just offering a suggestion for food for thought. I’m not making a pledge or a promise.”
Bhalla is proud to have advocated for the creation of the office of a tenant advocate attorney in city hall, an expert in tenant/landlord law who has regular office hours.
“He tells me [those hours] are filled with tenants coming to him with problems,” Bhalla says.
Bhalla cites the ballot referendum question from November 2013 and notes, “I was the only current candidate for mayor who spoke out against this. It would have decontrolled thousands of units in Hoboken.”
The referendum read as follows:
Shall the City of Hoboken continue annual rental increase protections for current residents of rent controlled properties but allow property owners to negotiate rents for vacant apartments and exempt buildings with one-to-four units and condominium units from the rent leveling ordinance by adopting the proposed amendment to Chapter 155 of the Code of the City of Hoboken
Ultimately, Bhalla says he is very much pro rent control.
“Needless to say, it’s imperfect,” he says. “I’ve personally tried over the years to make our local ordinance better.”
Councilman Defusco believes a person’s background influences his leadership and that his gives him an edge on this topic.
“As quite frankly the only major currently elected candidate running for office that doesn’t live in a brownstone or doesn’t own significant real estate in this town, I personally know how difficult it is to afford to live here,” Defusco says. “The same can’t be said of my competition … I really find myself alone in this field as a private sector professional who works in Manhattan to pay my mortgage.”
Defusco points to the current administration’s “inactivity” with regard to keeping Hoboken affordable and is proud to bring “an independent voice, a fresh voice” to the mayoral race.
“Where I think we’re at right now as a city … it’s largely in part due to the inactivity of our current administration and those who have been in power for many years,” Defusco says. “And the fact that our zoning laws have not been updated to make it so that folks that want to build a diversity of apartment sizes can do so. Right now our land use ordinance prioritizes single-family brownstones and quite frankly duplexes which sell in the millions of dollars. I think if we wanted to have an honest conversation about land use, it would be about inviting in potentially smaller apartments near transportation hubs.”
He also takes issue with the current administration’s flood ordinance.
“I think that we need to understand that it has directly been linked to the destruction of historic brownstones that have contained rent-controlled units,” Defusco says. “What goes up in their place to raise these brownstones up to flood elevation are single-family brownstones and, again, duplexes that retail for 3 to 4 million dollars … We need to address and size back the flood zone to center it on parts of the community that are truly in flood zones. And kind of take a look at what has been done in Manhattan and push back on the FEMA regulations. We cannot afford to lose not only our historic architecture but all of the affordable and rent controlled units within them.”
So what is his plan for change?
It begins with modernization.
“I think that we need to evaluate the organization of all the rent files in city hall,” Defusco says. “We need to digitize our files. We need to have a dedicated representative that’s going to be in that office working to give landlords the price of the apartment as well as working with tenants to ensure that they understand their rights … And I believe this position doesn’t need to be and probably shouldn’t be a lawyer. This should be somebody … that understands the displacement crisis we’re facing, does not have the interest in … trading political and legal contracts in and around Hoboken in favor of a job.
“Our current rent control advocate is quite frankly very close with Councilman Bhalla and I take great concern that the person representing the city is politically connected in other municipalities and working for realtors and working for property owners completely on the other side of rent control and tenant advocacy. I believe that the person that should be and will be staffing the rent control office in the new year will be somebody that’s an advocate, somebody that understands the laws, somebody with compassion, somebody with a heart to work with … the administration to advance the construction of more affordable housing as well as a community land trust.”
Defusco elaborated on the importance of the community land trust (CLT):
“We need to begin to understand that this city could be advocating for the acquisition of historic structures that we then control and can maintain affordable and middle income and rent control housing.”
When asked about the push-pull of raising money for a mayoral campaign in Hoboken and not being beholden to developer donors who are resistant to affordable housing and rent control, Defusco said he never felt like he had to straddle that line.
“I have always fought for what I believed in,” Defusco says. “I don’t know if that’s smart politics or it’s good governance but I have never said anything I didn’t believe in and I have never promised something that I haven’t delivered on. The same cannot be said about my opponents.”
Further, Defusco notes that development isn’t altogether a bad thing.
“It can be if it’s unbridled, if it’s unchecked and if it returns to the corruption of the past,” Defusco says. “So what we need to be mindful of is that community land use and urban planning can result in the additional construction of workforce and senior housing. It could create additional inventory where we could have teachers, artists, public safety professionals, city hall employees, people that really add a diversity and intelligentsia and heartfelt approach to the city that we definitely need. The second we become a rich community without diversity, we take away from what brought us all here in the first place.”
For Councilwoman Giattino, her approach to these issues begins with the stories she hears and the people she’s helped since becoming attuned to the affordable housing crisis in Hoboken. It’s about the phone calls. The phone calls.
“I get a lot of them,” Giattino says. “I do. It’s horrible. I do think that people say, ‘you should call Jen, she helped so and so.’”
She takes on people’s potential displacement and sets out to negotiate a way out of it. Sometimes she succeeds. Sometimes it’s too late by the time it gets to her. But it has made her acutely aware of how significant an issue it is.
Her feeling on the 10 percent allotment mandate is that it doesn’t work for condos because the maintenance fee that the owner would have to pay wipes out the affordability.
“The 10 percent rental can work,” Giattino says. “I do have some concerns about getting people placed in them. We just … actually voted on the affordable housing manual which gives some sort of criteria to how people can get the units. I think we would be better off taking the money as opposed to the units. So if you’re getting one unit, whatever the value is, the city would be better off putting it in the affordable housing trust. Not that it has to be city run; it could still be something that’s privately run.
“But having it run that way, what’s going to happen is you’ll end up with any new affordable units are all going to be in one location, right? Essentially the western part of Hoboken. It’s exactly how in my opinion affordable housing should not be. It shouldn’t be all the affordable units are over here, all the market rate are up here. It’s important to me personally that I live with people of all diversities. I like to see economic diversity too and I think it’s really important for our children to see differences in people.”
Giattino also voiced concerns about some aspects of the flood ordinance. For example, Hoboken is losing garden apartments that are typically the most affordable ones in a building.
“I don’t think people realize the rate we are losing units,” Giattino says. “We’ve talked about, is there the ability to exempt if it’s a pre-existing apartment and especially if it’s tenant occupied and you’re doing something like that to let that be grandfathered in? Because you can’t have any living space below flood level elevation, and I understand for flooding purposes why you wouldn’t want someone living there, but the flood ordinance has to be followed even if you don’t live in a flood zone, which is insane.”
Giattino is very interested in community land trusts (CLTs), but cites Hoboken’s lack of land as a reason they might not work as well as in other places.
“If we had empty land it would be an easy thing to do,” Giattino says.
Still, she thinks some people in town would be open to selling their home to something they knew was going to build the community.
“I’ve talked to a few people about [CLTs], so I don’t know how financially it works, but it could be a way of saving some of these teardowns,” Giattino says. “If someone’s selling a four-family home that someone else is just going to buy and tear down and build a one-family, maybe there’s a way of purchasing that and turning those into CLTs.”
And while she would like to see a CLT work, she is also educating herself on other ways to provide affordable housing. For example, what are they doing across the river that’s really working?
“I do have this obsession lately with micro units,” Giattino says. “They’re building them in New York and it’s fascinating how much, how many more units you can get. I’ll sit there and Google them at night.”
So it’s safe to say this will be a priority in a Giattino administration?
“YES!” Giattino says. “Yes. I think anything I’ve experienced the past six years on the council, with people’s issues, now I know they’re there. You can’t ignore them. You have to do what you can to address them.”
For Hudson County Freeholder Romano, love of Hoboken runs deep and so much of how he sees affordable housing and rent control is tied to the fact that he’s a native.
“I’ve had a bird’s eye view,” Romano says. “I’ve grown up at the same time that Hoboken rehabilitated itself through applied housing, Clock Towers, Marine View. Church Towers was there before myself. I’ve watched Hoboken go from civil disturbances and urban decay to the shiny metropolis it’s become. It’s a city of urban transformation.”
In that time he’s learned that he doesn’t want landlords to feel entitled to push people out, that he doesn’t want tenants who take advantage of a situation, and that rent control is important.
“But at the same time we have to find that balance,” Romano says.
How about the 10 percent allotment mandate on new buildings?
“Ten percent, that’s nice for the new development,” Romano says. “But I think we should be building more affordable housing buildings, where the whole building is affordable housing. More, I’ll use the example, like Church Towers or Marine View. Or I like what’s being done in downtown Jersey City on Garfield Avenue, two-family homes. Because we’ve learned in the low-income housing area what happens — crime breeds in the high rises. It should be important to keep the balance. You don’t want to force all the people that have been here so long that are low- to middle-income out of the city.”
Romano particularly laments the loss of so many police officers, firemen, teachers and nurses that have had to move out of Hoboken.
“Everybody says [they] should all live in town,” Romano says. “Unfortunately many can’t afford it. They have two or three kids. It was easy to say, but how do we keep them here? Because they’re four groups that are always integral in a city, the fabric of a city. They get castigated if they don’t live here … A lot of my police officers moved to Central Jersey. They get more bang for their buck. They get a home with a yard. Or even in Bayonne or Secaucus. You can’t blame them, especially now with all that’s going on with the pensions and the benefits. They have to survive and I think it’s important to try to entice them back, but you really can’t because there’s no more options left.”
Does he feel like his hands are tied?
“It’s not going to be overnight,” Romano says. “It’s going to take time, time and pragmatism. Groups are going to have to learn to work together. It’s like everything else, when you’re way out here you don’t get anything done. You have to try to find a medium to make the situation work. Personalities, too. It’s so important to try to keep a dialogue going. Obviously I could say all these wonderful things that everyone wants to hear. First and foremost, I would definitely bring in the rent control advocates, some landlords that are good landlords, and some that are not, and beef up your housing inspection situation.
“You have to work with developers and make them understand that affordable housing is important to try to hammer out this divisiveness. I’m not going to think utopia. There’s always going to be that disconnect. But to have some kind of understanding and respect and have a positive dialogue where things can be fair for all those concerned, you have to try to close the loopholes where again these landlords that are not good landlords take advantage.”
As for his own living situation as a resident of Marine View and the landlord of a property on Washington Street, does Romano anticipate any problems with people choosing not to vote for him because of it?
“I don’t feel it is [a problem],” he says. “As a young, single father I had to work two jobs to afford the rent in Marine View and I pay a surcharge. A lot of people don’t know that. I’ve got to straighten out someone about that. Oh, we didn’t know you paid that in rent. Yes, my rent is in the thousands. It’s not 600 or 900, it’s in the thousands. And I inherited from my family a dilapidated building on Washington Street that had to be gutted.”
In his role as freeholder, Romano says he gets phone calls every day from people struggling to make their rent who are looking for answers on how to get into a particular apartment complex. The guy who remembers when nobody wanted to live in Hoboken does all he can to help them.
Nancy Colasurdo is a freelance writer and Hoboken resident. This piece was commissioned by the Hoboken Fair Housing Association.