JERSEY CITY, NJ - Nancy (not her real name) has been a landlord in Jersey City Heights for more than four decades after having inherited buildings from her parents. While her classmates went on to college and other careers, these buildings became her livelihood, especially after her husband died in late 2017.

All three of her buildings are old and in constant need of repair, and all three are regularly being inspected by city and state authorities to meet standards that are constantly getting more difficult to comply with, she said, the cost of adhering to these new codes lowers the profit margin.

Even before the pandemic she struggled to keep up with the rising cost, since it has become a nightmare as health inspections became even more stringent, she said.  And, through this all, she has not been allowed to raise the rent to cover some of these costs.

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Worse still, she said, some of her tenants have fallen far behind on their rent. Fortunately, most of her residents have not skipped out after nine months of not paying rent the way other small landlords have had.

While city council members expressed sympathy for these mid-level landlords like Nancy, and despite pleas that they also need relief, the legislators voted unanimously to continue the rent freeze.

The ordinance would keep the freeze until Gov. Phil Murphy ends the COVID-19 state of emergency  that has been in place since March 2020. This would also prevent landlords from collecting interest on late payments from tenants. Under the state of emergency, landlords cannot evict tenants even if they have not paid rent. While landlords can take legal action against tenants, no one can be removed until the state of emergency ends.

The ordinance would exclude owner-occupied residences with four or fewer units, still striking one of Nancy’s buildings that contains five units. 

Several council members said that they understand that there is a need to provide relief to all residents of the city, but that are focused for the moment on the direst in need, or those who risk becoming homeless. And they say the rent freeze is one of the ways they can help these people.

“We’re still in the middle of the pandemic,” said councilwoman Mire Prinz-Arey, citing the number of calls for help she’s received over the last year from struggling, unemployed tenants.

They rightfully point out that recent federal in city rent relief grants have gone, to some degree, to the landlords to help both the residents who are struggling and to help provide cash flow for landlords.

While several landlords argued their case that the economy is changing, and the pandemic is nearing an end, most of those who spoke at the council meeting argued in favor of continuing the freeze.

Many of those supporting the continuance, it seemed, find no distinction between the super-rich landlords who have received tax abatements on luxury high-rises and those just barely struggling with a handful of apartments for rent.

Elena Little said landlords who are feeling the pinch should lower the rent, suggesting that they have remained high in order to keep out “undesirables.” She said the city should consider establishing a vacancy tax to discourage warehousing of vacant apartments.

“Throwing these people to the wolves is not only unwise, it is cruel,” Ryan Heisinger, another proponent of the freeze said, adding that residents are facing both a health and fiscal crisis. Many renters have lost employment and could not afford a rent increase, he said. 

Yet another, Gary Spingarn, offered his assessment that the real estate market is hot, and that “these landlords can sell their property if they are losing money.”

“There’s never been a better time,” he theorizes. “These are investments, and this means risk. They should not be pushing their losses onto their tenants who are already hurting.”

On the other side of the argument is James Ambrosio, a 35-year landlord who said he considers many of his long-time tenants friends. “We still need to maintain the buildings,” he said, noting that his expenses have increased, and that there is no freeze on paying vendors or utilities, yet increased costs due to COVID safety protocols.

He said small landlords are small business owners, and that the city should recognize the burden they are placing on these landlords. He said the city should consider providing a tax credit to landlords who were required to freeze rents during the pandemic.

Jersey City Property Owners Association (JCPOA) Executive Director Ron Simoncini – who represents landlords in Jersey City as well as other communities throughout the county and the state, said the city needs to do a survey of need before it actually passes a blanket freeze such as the one proposed, similar to one Liberty Board of Realtors did recently.

This survey, he said, showed that there has been a spike in the number of people who are not paying rent during the pandemic, then moving out without paying before the state permits evictions again.

With schools scheduled to open in April, restrictions being lifted on restaurants, and the recreation programs resuming, Simoncini said the rent freeze should be lifted as well, due partly to the high costs associated with providing “sterile living environments” for tenants. 

Councilman Yousef Saleh shared that while he has sympathy for the landlords, tenants are a priority, while Councilman Richard Boggiano, offering his vote for the continued freeze, said that the city should take into account the needs of property owners as well.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, even if we’re turning a corner,” Counclman Rolano Lavarro said. “While there seems to be an improvement in the unemployed numbers, this may not reflect the real issue.”

“People are in dire straits.”

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