I'm the mayor of Newark. We have to get NJ's rental crisis under control | Opinion (2024)

Ras J. Baraka

Irecently met a single mother who was evicted from her home here in Newark. She described bedtime with her three young children as a tangle of blankets and limbs in the back seat of her car, and having to tote necessary toiletries to and from a nearby convenience store bathroom. Her family’s life was upended because her landlord had weighed the program that paid him half of what he wanted for her rent against the opportunity to profit from leasing to a tenant who could afford to pay top dollar every month. We can’t blame a landlord for wanting his property to yield the highest revenue. But this mother and so many like her find themselves tossed to the sidewalk through no fault of their own.

Luckily, Newark cares for its own, and we have Luis Ulerio as our homelessness czar in theMayor's Office of Homeless Services.Now she and her little ones stay at Harmony House. She has started a new job and will possibly get a transitional voucher.

While this appears to be a happy ending to a tragic story, it should never have happened in the first place. The landlord was in his legal right to increase the rent as high as he wanted in an apartment not under rent control. But should he have been allowed to do that? Thirty percent of the rental housing in Newark is not under rent control, and there is presently no penalty for how much a landlord increases those rents.

Newark faces a crisis of affordability.The value of property in Newark is increasing rapidly. Landlords are charging rents of over $2,000 for one-bedroom apartments in areas where they were just $750 five years ago. And when the moratorium on rent increases is lifted here, there will be an avalanche of rent increases and an avalanche of evictions for those not protected by rent control.

A report issued recently by Consumer Affairs, a national consumer advocate group, ranksNew Jersey as the 10th-worst place for renters.And Newark is worse than the rest of New Jersey. With a median family income of about $2,500 a month, and a median rent of about $1,900 a month, many Newark families need more than one job to scrape by.“Homes Beyond Reach,”a Rutgers report, says the average Newark resident can afford to pay only about $800 monthly for rent.And now rents in Newark are increasing over 100%. This is making our city unlivable for more and more people.

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In this environment of rapidly rising rents, the Newark Municipal Council has now passed an ordinance to prevent unconscionable rent increases of 5% or more in a single year for apartments not covered by rent control.The Unconscionable Rent Increase Ordinance is not something designed to protect the rich, who can afford high rents. It protects the poorest Newarkers and all others who are without rent control and don’t live in public housing. For example, the Office of Tenant Legal Services provides free legal services for low-income tenants facing eviction. They report that low-income tenants have faced rent increases of as much as $945 in the East Ward, $816 in the South, $750 in the Central, $550 in the North and $445 in the West.

While Newark is creating and preserving affordable housing, affordable housing is being stolen from us by LLCs that are buying up owner-occupied homes and turning them into high-priced rentals.Purchases of residential properties in Newark by corporate entities is already causing rents to rise and owner-occupancy to fall, according to a new Rutgers-Newarkstudy,“Who Owns Newark? Transferring Wealth from Newark Homeowners to Corporate Buyers.”The study found that 47% of home sales were made to institutional investor buyers from 2017 to 2020.That makes it all the more urgent for Newark to protect affordability in all of its housing.

The Unconscionable Rent Increase Ordinance will impose penalties on any landlord who charges rent increases of more than 5% in a year. This is not an extension of rent control. Instead, it applies only to properties not under rent control. The sponsors of this ordinance don’t want to see Newark become another Hoboken or Brooklyn. They don’t want to see our city gentrified, with Newark residents pushed out because they can no longer afford to live here.

The landlord lobby is saying that if the Unconscionable Rent Increase Ordinance is passed, all development will stop in Newark. They say developers will take their money someplace else; that Newark will become a city of just the very poor.

We’ve seen that kind of fearmongering before. That’s what landlords said when rent control was first proposed. It’s the kind of thing that corporate lobbyists say when people want to increase the minimum wage, and what agribusiness lobbyists said about food prices when we started regulating the safety of meats. The reality is that Newark has already passed numerous laws designed to keep housing affordable: the inclusionary zoning ordinance (IZO); strong amendments to the IZO; mandated contributions to our affordable housing fund; the original rent control and the ordinance that strengthened rent control. None of these stopped development. And if you walk around downtown, you’ll see residential tower after tower under construction, with dozens more on the drawing boards. There is a strong demand by Newarkers who want to upgrade and live in a new apartment, and by others who want to move into our wonderful city. That’s why there continues to be a strong demand by developers who want to profit by building here.

So, in Newark, we reject the fearmongering of the past and think about what can be done to keep Newark as a livable, affordable city for the people who call it home. The Unconscionable Rent Increase Ordinance is one important step that the council has taken. It’s not the only one, but it’s a big step toward continuing to be the kind of culturally and economically diverse city that makes Newark so special. It’s the kind of step that brings compassion and justice to people like the single mother and her three children who now use their car for the requirements of theupward mobilitythat makes the American Dream a reality.

Ras J. Baraka is mayor of Newark.

I'm the mayor of Newark. We have to get NJ's rental crisis under control | Opinion (1)
I'm the mayor of Newark. We have to get NJ's rental crisis under control | Opinion (2024)

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