Install a toilet, hike the rent Some say law makes it too easy for landlords to raise prices

In an effort to increase the quality of life in Union City, the city passed an updated Rent Stabilization Ordinance in 1996 that made it necessary for landlords to improve the condition of the apartments before they significantly raised the rents. However, the chairperson of the Hudson County Tenants Council, Wafaa Mikhail, said recently that the ordinance has made it too easy for landlords to hike rents.

The ordinance actually allows the landlords to increase the rent after installing a certain kind of toilet and paying for an inspection.

“Many of these apartments have gone up in rent two and three times already,” said Mikhail, sitting on the couch in her Union City apartment last week. “It happens every day.”

Mikhail specifically mentioned the Rent Unit Preservation Allowance system that was added to the ordinance. This RPA system allows tenants to take an apartment off rent control after the apartment has been renovated and has passed numerous inspections. This only applies to vacant apartments and cannot affect a tenant already living there.

“The idea was that every building would be in compliance with state and municipal law,” said Rent Control Supervisor Carlos Perez, who wrote the ordinance in 1995. Before the city’s Community Development Agency issues an RPA, the inspector has to make sure that the building is also up to state standards, which include having an electrical plug on each wall, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as repairing any plumbing or damaged areas that need to be repaired.

But Mikhail said the new system is taking affordable housing away from the tenants.

Currently, most buildings in the city fall under the city’s rent control law, which limits the amount a landlord can raise the rent to five percent per year. If a landlord does a renovation and gets an RPA, he can raise the rent to whatever he wants. After receiving an RPA hike, the apartment returns to rent control under its new rent. The landlord can apply for another RPA after two years.

“We lose a lot of affordable housing units to RPAs that can never be replaced,” said Mikhail. “There has to be a limit as to what an apartment is worth in Union City. Some landlords are just getting one RPA on top of another.”

Skyrocketing rents

According to the ordinance, in order to receive an RPA, “A landlord shall pay $155 for an inspection of the apartment and install the most efficient 1.6 water gallon toilet.”

Mikhail charged that many landlords are just replacing the toilet bowls, putting on a fresh coat of paint, and raising the rents hundreds of dollars.

But some landlords in the city said that their colleagues have made significant changes before getting the increase.

Chris Yegen, the owner of multiple apartment buildings in the city, said, “Landlords that I know and myself have put in brand new bathrooms and kitchens. You basically have new apartments.”

Betsy Eisenberg, from Urban American Housing, which owns many buildings in the city, said that she usually has to take an apartment off the market for at least two months while renovating it for inspection.

However, Chris Yegen also conceded that some landlords may be taking advantage of the laws.

“There probably are some landlords who are not fixing their apartments properly,” Yegen said. He said that some landlords might spend $3,000 to make the apartment look new rather than spending the full $8,000 to actually repair the problem.

“If you don’t make it new then it will break again,” Yegen said. “Then you have really wasted that money.”

Some landlords may try to take advantage of the system, said Union City Mayor Brian Stack.

“You have some landlords who come in and put $15,000 into an apartment and they deserve to raise their rents,” said Stack. “But some landlords slap on a fresh coat of paint and buy a new toilet bowl.” Lenny Calvo, a senior inspector with the city’s Community Development Agency, said, “We do a very strict evaluation. We don’t just want the apartments up to date, but up to code.”

Calvo added, “We go to some apartments once, twice three or four times. We are not just going to approve any inspection.”

Problems with the system

Stack, also a voting member of the Hudson County Tenants Council, agreed that the ordinance does have some loopholes. He recently met with the Community Development Agency to look over the ordinance.

“This is not anything that after one or two meetings is going to be done,” said Stack. “The RPAs can be an effective tool.”

“This is a fairly new ordinance,” said Calvo. “Of course there are going to be some road blocks in it.” Stack said the ordinance may be changed to mention the common areas and facades of the buildings as well as the apartments.

“The point of the ordinance was to rehabilitate the old housing that we have,” said Stack. “The whole entire building needs to be bettered, not just the unit.”

“The long-term goal,” said Calvo, “Is that the landlords will have the money to improve the outside of the buildings as well.”

Calvo added, “Union City is the only municipality in Hudson County that does not have development on the waterfront or the Meadowlands. This is the only way to improve Union City and the quality of life.”

Topic of debate

Stack is also looking to make changes to the inspection process. Right now the landlords have to go through many different inspections before receiving an RPA. The landlord needs to contact a building inspector, a fire inspector, a Community Development Agency inspector and others.

“We want to consolidate all inspectors under one department,” said Stack, who said that sometimes an inspector would enter an apartment and not know that another inspector was just there the day before. Stack said that he will include input from both tenants and landlords.

“We are looking at the whole ordinance,” said Stack. He added that he has been reading up on the rent control ordinances in other towns in the area.

Mikhail said that the biggest tenant complaint is that the landlords are getting away with the very minimal changes and raising the rents for the tenants. Mikhail said she believes this is forcing people out of the city.

“We have a lot of people that fall through the cracks here,” said Mikhail. “It isn’t fair.”

Stack agreed that the people of Union City need to have more affordable housing.

“We have a population of people who cannot afford expensive housing,” said Stack. “I am trying to maintain the rent controlled units that we have now.”

But Yegen said that keeping every apartment at rent control doesn’t always make economic sense. “You can no longer rent an apartment for $350,” said Yegen. “If people need to rent an apartment for $350 they probably qualify for Section 8 or subsidized housing.”

Yegen added, “When you have depressed rents for years and years, [that type of situation does] not allow the landlords to fix the apartments.”


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