Newark Tenants Try to Tighten Rent Control as Downtown Booms
Desiree Kearney didn’t have to look far for evidence of the housing trend that has her and other longtime Newark residents worried.
Standing outside an unemployment center in downtown Newark, she pointed to a shiny gray and steel building with sharp corners and a clean, minimalist design.
“Those are lofts and they were just built within the last three or four years,” Kearney said, envying the outdoor space on each unit. “Those are for New York City commuters. You’re going to see a few more if you go further down Broad Street.”
Gentrification isn’t ripping through Newark the way it has Brooklyn or other cities in America. It’s moving slowly; the city lost more than 100,000 of its resident after riots 50 years ago, so there is room for growth without having to displace existed dwellers.
But there is a clear tension between the older, mostly poorer, residents – and landlords who they see as catering to newcomers who have more discretionary money to spend for housing.
“We made Newark ‘Brick City,’” Kearney said. “ We love hip-hop.We love house [music]. We love everything about the city. But unfortunately, we’re being forced out of it.”
Housing advocates are trying to take multi-pronged approach to manage what they see as the slow encroachment of gentrification.
First, they pushed for an inclusionary zoning law that would require builders to set aside affordable housing units in large developments; that has yet to pass.
Now, various organizations have come together to put a referendum question on the ballot in November that would tighten the city’s rent control ordinance.
Rent control in the city dates back to 1973. It allows landlords to increase rents each year according to the consumer price index. Until early this year, landlords that spent $5,000 per room in renovations could raise rents by another 20 percent. Then, in March, Newark City Council and Mayor Ras Baraka dropped the threshold, permitting landlords to tack on that extra 20 percent if they spent the equivalent of eight months of rent to renovate unit. In other words, a landlord with an $1,000/month 3-room apartment previously needed to spend $15,000 to raise the rent to $1,200; now he only needs to spend $8,000.
“The purpose,” said Derek Reed, an attorney for the Newark Apartment Owners Association, “is to incentivize investment into vacant units.”
Tenants groups want to roll back the measure. Under their proposal, renovation-related increases would be limited to 10 percent — and only after the landlord spent the equivalent of 12 months’ rent to renovate. (For that hypothetical $1,000/month apartment, the landlord would need to spend $12,000, but could raise the rent only to $1,100 — making the law even more restrictive than before the March amendment.)
Drew Curtis, the director of community development and environmental justice at the Ironbound Community Corporation, said that it is hard for a family earning $34,000 a year — the city’s median income — to manage such large rent hikes. Downtown units can go for $2,000 a month, he said, or $24,000 a year.
But Reed, the attorney for the landlords’ association, said existing tenants are protected from increases because the rent can only go up after the apartment is vacated.
“I think you would see a chill on investment into vacant units,” he said, if the tenants’ measure is approved.
The tenants said they have to get nearly 1,200 signatures for their proposed measure to get on the ballot.
Co-published with WNYC.