Right to Counsel: Jersey City tenants fight for free lawyers in eviction struggles
via Right to Counsel JC

JERSEY CITY, N.J.—Two years ago, a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that a full-time worker in the U.S. needs to earn at least $25.82 per hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment, and $21.25 per hour for a one-bedroom apartment. The federal minimum wage, however, has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines, housing should not cost more than 30% of a person’s income, yet many are paying 50% or more.

In Jersey City—where HUD has calculated median rent at $1,995 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, or $2,288 per month for a two-bedroom apartment—a single person working a full-time job needs to earn at least $38.37 per hour to afford their one-bedroom apartment. Working 40 hours per week, a single parent would need to earn $44 per hour to rent a two-bedroom home. Yet, the state’s minimum wage is just $14.13.

As a result of these financial pressures, grassroots battles for the right to housing have been exploding everywhere. From New York City to Los Angeles, these include direct actions to stop evictions, fights for rent control, struggles for more and stronger protections for tenants, and demands for more affordable housing—including more investment into public housing.

Testimonials at a meeting of the city council. | Cameron Orr / People’s World

Among these, a growing national movement for tenants’ right to a free lawyer, called “Right to Counsel,” is fighting against the unfair advantage wealthy building owners have in the legal system. On average, only 3% of tenants facing an eviction have a lawyer, compared to 81% of their landlords, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC).

This struggle began in New York City in 2014, and the city’s renters won Right to Counsel (RTC) three years later. Since then, RTC has been won in at least three states and 14 other cities, including Newark, N.J., with good results. In those areas, landlords are suing tenants less, and when tenants do get eviction notices, they’re much more likely to win their cases and stay in their homes. In the seven cities that passed RTC laws by 2021, the eviction rate went down 77%.

As the movement builds, RTC demands are becoming stronger. Many, like those now organizing for a statewide RTC in New York, are working to pass RTC laws that would not have income restrictions, and that would provide a free lawyer in cases where tenants themselves need to bring cases against landlords who refuse to do needed repairs, or who otherwise abuse, neglect, or discriminate against them.

This includes the RTC coalition in Jersey City. Last summer, tenants began knocking on doors collecting petitions for a universal RTC that will protect all tenants, regardless of income or any other status, and that would allow tenants to bring cases against their landlords regarding needed repairs, discrimination, termination of subsidies, or enforcement of a restraining order.

Solidarity with the RTC movement. | Cameron Orr / CPUSA

Right To Counsel JC is fighting to have the program run by an office in city hall and funded by fees on big new development projects. Such a program would be a strong enforcement mechanism, empowering tenants to help the city make sure housing laws are followed and buildings are up to code.

RTC activists have knocked on thousands of doors, and over 1,000 Jersey City residents have signed the petition. Many have repeatedly shown up at city council meetings, sometimes late into the night, calling on their elected officials to support tenants’ right to have legal representation. They have been joined by tenants of the rent-controlled Portside Towers, where the landlord has been raising rents far above the legal amount.

Two ordinances associated with RTC in Jersey City have been introduced. One establishes the RTC program itself. The other would gradually introduce fees on corporate landlords and developers, who have simultaneously driven up rents throughout the city and—by obtaining tax abatements (i.e. tax cuts) from the city in exchange for a few affordable housing units—have shifted the tax burden onto small homeowners. The money from these fees would go into an affordable housing fund, a small part of which would provide legal services for tenants.

However, due to certain legal interpretations, the funds from this program will only be used to cover legal services for tenants in households that earn less than 80% (around $65,112 per year) of the “Area Median Income” ($81,390 annually). As of now, no source of funding has been proposed to cover the costs of legal services for tenants’ with incomes above that or for those who can’t prove their income.

The RTC ordinance’s deadline for a fully established program is Jan. 1, 2026.

However, the RTC ordinances are now being revised and will be re-introduced at the May 24th meeting of the city council. In the meantime, real estate interests are putting pressure on the city council to weaken or abandon RTC, and tenants are also fighting to make their voices heard.

A Koch brothers’ law firm sent a letter to city council claiming RTC is unconstitutional, and RTC organizers report that real estate giant LeFrak is lobbying against it as well. Pro-developer activist Ron Simoncini came to the April 26th city council meeting promising to put in his best efforts to kill RTC, just as he and developer Mark Villamar did to rent control measures in Bayonne and Hoboken.

At the same time, tenants are mobilizing, calling their elected officials, requesting meetings with them, and organizing turnout for the next city council meeting. The RTC coalition has also organized a Tenants’ Town Hall on May 18th to strengthen the fightback.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.