Lakewood NJ tenants want relief from mounting rent hikes

LAKEWOOD — Every time Rafaela Aguilar showers, she checks that the water is coming from her showerhead and not from the upstairs apartment. It’s a precaution she’s taken since October, when her bathroom ceiling collapsed, sending dirty water into her apartment.

Aguilar said she repeatedly told her landlord about the dilapidated ceiling, but it was never fixed. Instead, in late February, she received a notice from her landlord, Lakewood Plaza Housing LLC, that her rent was increasing by $1,300 to $1,588 a month — a 22% increase, well above the 6.5% annual rent increase limit set by Lakewood Ordinances.

Another tenant who also rents from Lakewood Plaza Housing, Sixtos Ayala, received a notice in February saying his rent was going from $1,300 to $1,582 starting this month.

“There is legal literature that allows us to go over 6.5%,” said Felipe Alencar, property manager at Lakewood Plaza Housing. He pointed to wording in Lakewood’s rent control code that allows landlords who have not raised rent in four years to make a cumulative rent increase “by calculating the normal percentage allowed and prorating that percentage.” the number of months elapsed since the last increase.”

Aguilar and Ayala, however, said they had secured rent increases over the past four years.

Since the start of 2022, the number of tenants facing steep rent increases has skyrocketed, according to Eugenio Espinosa, community services coordinator at New Jersey’s Solutions to End Poverty Soon (NJ STEPS), a coalition of anti-poverty advocates. statewide poverty.

“Nobody checks rent control. When people come here complaining about high rent increases, we call their landlords and explain the situation to them (rent increase limits),” Espinosa said.

“I have lived in this township for 40 years and the housing situation is not improving. Every day there is something new and in 2022 we have been bombarded with complaining tenants,” Espinosa said.

Lakewood tenants plan march, want solutions

While rents can be expected to rise in New Jersey’s fastest-growing municipality — where the population soared 46% between 2010 and 2020 — it’s the apparent defiance of building codes. rental premises which brings together tenants to walk on Sunday.

The event is scheduled to start at noon at the Lakewood Amphitheater on North Lake Drive and end at Town Square on Clifton Avenue.

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The march is organized by Andrew Meehan, a math teacher and Bergen County civil rights activist who has stood up for students at Lakewood Public School for the past three years.

“With this walk, we hope to first increase awareness of the issues affecting Lakewood tenants and second, to pressure the township to come up with solutions to these ongoing issues,” Meehan said.

“The owners can’t do what they want. The city has a responsibility not to let these cases pass with impunity,” said Alejandra Morales, leader of Voz Latina, a community advocacy organization in Lakewood.

About 49% of Lakewood residents are renters, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, 19.4% and 12.1% of neighboring Brick and Howell residents are renters, respectively.

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According to Lakewood ordinances, rents can be increased by 5% per year – or 6.5%, if the lease includes the cost of heating.

If a landlord hasn’t increased the rent in 10 years, they can increase the amount by four times 6.5% of the current rent. If a landlord hasn’t raised the rent in 2.5 years, they can raise the rent by 2.5 times that amount. Landlords who increase the rent annually cannot increase it by more than 6.5%.

Common Tenant Complaints

Of the many tenants surveyed by the Asbury Park Press, the most common complaints were rent increases above ordinance limits; tenants living on expired leases; lack of repairs; verbal agreements; leases without dates; and harassment of owners.

Roberto Balaguez and Reina Flores have lived in the same complex on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive for five years. Last year their rent went up from $1,200 to $1,350 a month, and last February they were verbally informed that there was another $500 increase starting in March.

Flores contacted a legal aid office but couldn’t get much help since there were no dates on her lease. Its owner, Weitman Partnership LLC, denied such a raise had been offered, but did not respond to a request for an interview. Right now the couples rent has not gone up an additional $500.

Reyna Flores and Roberto Valaguez received a lease from its landlord where no date was included.

Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles said tenants should contact his office if they have a problem with the landlord. Coles said in an interview that some of the tenant-landlord issues were caused by incorrect information provided by advocacy groups. According to Coles, some advocacy groups tell tenants not to pay their rent when they have a problem with their landlords.

“What people need to know is that regardless of their (immigration) status, they need to contact us and we will do our best to help them with any means at our disposal,” Coles said. “Most of the time when people call us, we can work with the owner and find a solution.

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After the press questioned Township City Manager Patrick Donnelly about the tenant complaints, the press received a call about the investigation from Michael McNeil, director of NJ STEPS, a non-profit, non-governmental organization. McNeil said he was referred to the press by the township.

McNeill said the township refers tenant complaint cases to NJ STEPS.

“Rent control needs to be rebuilt”

Lucía Crivelli, a single mother of three, is one of many tenants who rented by the month after her lease expired in September 2021. Last February, her landlord texted her saying she had to leave the apartment in a month because the property had to be demolished.

Crivelli’s situation has led to sleepless nights. She said just arranging transport to the three schools her children attend would take at least two weeks. Since she has no car or family in New Jersey, it will cost her $60 a day to take her children to school in a taxi while she arranges transportation with the school district. With her income as a housekeeper, she won’t be able to afford it, or find the money for moving expenses on such short notice, she said.

Last February, Lucia Crivelli learned that her house where she had lived for 12 years was going to be demolished by the end of March.  Now she does not know where to go with her three children.

“I’m not against moving. I just need time to plan and save money,” Crivelli said.

” It’s hard. I really think so. It’s tough,” McNeil said. “Rent control needs to be rebuilt. It needs to be overhauled now.”

Rental prices are rising

Lakewood’s current rent control code was written in 1971. With the exception of two of the 32 stipulations in the code which were amended in 1999, the majority of the code remains the same as when it was written. half a century ago.

Rent prices are skyrocketing across the country. The median rent increased by 19.3%, between December 2020 and December 2021, according to an analysis conducted by Realtor.com.

No local or state agency has sufficient data on rental prices, but property values ​​are on the rise, according to data from the Monmouth and Ocean County Association of Realtors’ Internet Data Exchange Program.

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The Internet Data Exchange Program found Lakewood leads in median property value increases in the area. Since last year, the median selling price of Lakewood homes has increased by 45.3%. In Jackson, the increase was 14.9%, 18.9% in Howell, 10.5% in Brick and 23.3% in Toms River,

María Benítez, who has lived in the same Williams Street home since 2016, said her lease expired five years ago. She said she was dealing with repairs around the house, like when the drain got clogged two years ago.

Last February, Benítez learned that his rent was going to go up from $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

The high demand for housing in Lakewood is what is driving up rental prices, according to local landlord Aron Green.

Why haven’t landlords in the area increased rents each year in smaller increments, as allowed by local rent control ordinances?

“Well, the answer is very simple,” Green said. “So far the thing is the owners were holding on. They weren’t making more money, they were losing a little and a little and a little, and now it’s become a drastic change that they have to be able to increase.

According to a local ordinance, if landlords wish to increase rent beyond the permitted limit, they must submit a request for a rent increase to the township’s Rent Control Board along with a profit and loss statement.

In the past six months, however, the township’s Rent Control Board has received no requests for rent increases, the township clerk’s office said.

Juan Carlos Castillo is a reporter covering all of Lakewood. It delves into politics, social issues and human interest stories. Contact him at [email protected]

Lance B. Holton