Residents of a Jersey Shore town had a choice on Tuesday: enact a previously approved rent control measure, or opt for a stricter version.
They decided to stick with the former.
Last month, the Asbury Park City Council voted unanimously to cap rent increases at 3.5 percent or the region’s Consumer Price Index as set by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whichever is higher. The decision was in response to a move by the Asbury Park Affordable Housing Coalition, which had secured enough signatures on a petition to put its own rent control measure to a public vote.
That group argued that stricter measures are needed to provide housing stability for longtime residents and confront widening racial and economic disparities in the city. Its proposal would have limited rent increases to 4 percent or the CPI, whichever is lower, and would have imposed a series of other restrictions on landlords.
The affordable housing group’s ordinance would have applied to all rental units, with a few exceptions. The City Council’s restrictions apply to rental buildings with five or more units.
“Some residents will not be protected, who are the most vulnerable,” said Tracy Rogers, an organizer with the coalition.
Preliminary results indicated that 18 percent of the city’s 9,676 registered voters turned out for Tuesday’s vote, according to the Monmouth County Board of Elections.
“This community has been disenfranchised,” Rogers said. “They don’t trust elected officials; they don’t trust the democratic process.”
He said his organization is exploring its options for next steps.
The Jersey Shore town has seen increased development interest over the last decade, fueling concerns of displacement and gentrification. According to Zillow, typical home values in the city increased 17 percent year-over-year to $450,000 in February. That value represented a nearly 60 percent increase from February 2017. According to U.S. Census estimates, the median household income for the city was $47,841 between 2015 and 2019. During that time, 25.8 percent of people had an income below the poverty line.
One of the key differences between the Council and coalition’s measures was that the latter’s didn’t permit vacancy decontrol. Under the Council’s ordinance, apartments are temporarily deregulated upon vacancy, meaning landlords can increase rent for the next tenant without adhering to the measure’s caps. But once occupied, the apartment once again falls under rent control and any future rent increases must abide by the ordinance.
As a practice, vacancy decontrol is viewed by tenant advocates as an incentive for landlords to push renters out in order to jack up the rent. Landlords argue that without it, owners will disinvest in their properties and keep apartments vacant in favor of eventually converting the buildings into condos.
In 2019, New York eliminated its own vacancy decontrol option for owners of rent-stabilized apartments. That provision, however, permanently took an apartment out of rent regulation. In New Jersey, municipalities can opt to implement rent control, though newly constructed buildings remain unregulated for 30 years under state law.
Peter Siegel, a major multifamily landlord in the city and an organizer of the Asbury Park Property Owners’ Coalition, a group that fought the referendum measure, said he was primarily concerned with the lack of vacancy decontrol and the “stacked” rent stabilization board created under the tenant group’s ordinance, which called more tenant than landlord members.
He also felt the measure created an unfair process for a landlord to seek a higher rent increase due to financial hardship, saying it would have required owners to disclose private information and “empowered a few people to say you make too much money.” He didn’t initially support the City Council’s ordinance either, but found stories about renters facing 50 or 60 percent rent increases compelling.
“As the issue continued to evolve, and the debate continued to grow, I realized in fact, that renters should have some meaningful protections, and this was probably the most appropriate way to do it,” he said.