At a Jersey City Council meeting on Wednesday, April 12th, two proposals were approved that would create a right to counsel for low- and moderate-income residents and a way to fund that and other housing resources. The Right to Counsel Program would be funded by a fee levied on new residential developments in Jersey City. Read on to learn more about this legislation and what’s next.
About the Proposal
Councilman James Solomon along with Councilmembers Frank Gilmore and Yousef J. Saleh introduced the legislation, which is aimed at providing legal counsel for low-to-moderate income tenants, financed by developers. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop also supported the effort.
Jersey City Together (JCT), a coalition of over 100 pastors, faith leaders, and community advocates across Jersey City, endorsed the effort. “We are glad to see that the city is planning to provide a Right to Counsel to tenants in Jersey City,” said Ellen Nash, a leader of the Jersey City Together Housing Team. “Access to counsel is provided by Hoboken, Union City, NYC and many other cities across the US. It definitely ‘levels the playing field’ in Housing Court and results in statistically fewer evictions.”
In an interview with The Hoboken Girl, Councilman Solomon said the issue was brought to the forefront by the citizen-led organization Right to Counsel JC. “They’ve been a real leader in helping to push this to the council and partnering with the council to share proposals. This group deserves a ton of credit for pushing for a solution that will help thousands of residents in the city.”
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Councilman Solomon said, “The Right to Counsel program would keep residents in their homes by providing attorneys to help fight evictions, habitability issues, and other challenges. Other cities have seen a huge reduction in evictions when these types of programs are established. An eviction is a uniquely destabilizing event and citizens need more services and suffer more harms.”
“Based on our data, we think there are 8,000 to 9,000 families who are facing eviction, but we only know of maybe 1,000 of them. And generally, only 5% of tenants are represented in court during eviction proceedings, where 80% of landlords have legal representation,” he said. “We want to level the playing field.”
“The development fee would apply to new, market-rate residential developments. It could be up to $20 million annually, which could be spent on legal counsel, funding new affordable housing, emergency rental assistance, assistance to landlords who rent to low-income tenants, things like that. It’s a win-win for everyone,” Councilman Solomon said.
1) Jersey City has the chance to generate tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing by collecting development impact fees. pic.twitter.com/kLQnQ2I1Eu
— James Solomon (@SolomonforJC) April 10, 2023
There are 300 other communities in New Jersey that have development fees. But connecting the development fee-funded Trust Fund to the Right to Counsel means that the community can access the benefits without the taxpayers having to shoulder the burden. “The development fee funds the program responsibly,” he said. “The fee is set up to be a dedicated funding stream for the trust fund, and then the right to counsel program.”
Both proposals were approved on their first readings at the City Council meeting on Wednesday April 12th. The next step is to present the proposal to the Jersey City Planning Board. If the proposal moves forward, it will go back to the City Council in for a second reading. Even if it were to pass in Summer 2023, Councilman Solomon says that it would still take several years to realize all of the benefits of the program.
“The development fees would start to kick in in 2024 or 2025. So there will be some funding in 2024 and 2025, and ideally, it will be fully funded by 2026,” he said. “Many cities phase in these programs. For example, New York City phased its program in over a five-year period.”
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There will be a division director who will be the leader, and this person will be building the program. We also want the office to partner with outside groups, and non-profits who know the community, already working on the same or similar issues,” “When the program is fully funded, it will have 10 attorneys with probably 150 cases each, plus paralegals, outreach specialists, data analysts. We want a mix of people within the program and local partners to make it a success.”
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“The vote by the City Council to move the Right to Counsel and Development Fee Ordinances forward is a critical step towards ensuring equal representation for tenants in Jersey City,” said Councilman Solomon in a statement after the vote. “By providing access to legal counsel and ensuring developers pay their fair share in long-neglected fees, we can empower tenants to stand up against predatory landlords and improve the quality of housing in our city.”
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