Record Spending for Jersey City Referendum on Short-Term Rentals

Millions of dollars have been spent for and against city effort to restrict rental accommodation via online sites like Airbnb

More than $5 million has been raised, and mostly spent, in the pitched battle over a Jersey City ballot question on regulations for short-term rentals through online sites like Airbnb, a stark indication of the importance placed in the outcome by both sides.

Records filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission show that, as of Oct. 31, Airbnb has contributed $4.2 million to Keep Our Homes, a political committee that had spent $3.4 million for its “Vote No” campaign opposing regulations approved by the city council earlier this year.

Hotel trade groups have raised more than $1 million in support of the regulations, and spent about the same, the records show.

It’s by far the most expensive local ballot question in state history, eclipsing the $1 million spent a decade ago on a public question in Trenton.

Jersey City voters are being asked on the Nov. 5 ballot to decide whether to put restrictions on short-term rentals that will, among other things, require safety inspections, place a 60-day annual cap on listings where owners don’t live onsite and restrict rentals in buildings with four or more units.

The argument has drawn a sharp divide in the city, replete with crossfire accusations of misinformation and harassment. Much of the heated debate has focused on the language of the ordinance and exactly what it means.

It’s not ‘an outright ban’

“People were told that the ordinance is an outright ban, it is not,” said Beverly Brown-Ruggia, financial justice organizer for New Jersey Citizen Action, which is supporting the regulations. “Family members, friends and neighbors of mine signed the petition only to find out afterwards that they were lied to.”

Airbnb says the ordinance is an overreach, a measure that effectively imposes a ban on renters, cutting 70% of residents out of the short-term rental market. The company says it favors the drafting of an alternative ordinance that would encompass “sensible regulation.”

“It bans all renters from being able to share their homes, no ifs, ands or buts, bans short-term rentals in any building with four or more units,” said Airbnb spokesperson Liz DeBold Fusco.

Others’ arguments have focused on what’s best for residents and businesses of the waterfront city, just across the Hudson River from New York, where officials have cracked down on the short-term rentals.

“Large investors and landlords turn 3,000 homes into de facto hotels,” said Liz Fisher, a volunteer with Jersey City Together. “The rent goes up for you, for me, and for our friends and neighbors.”

The president of the Jersey City NAACP is pressing a “no” vote, saying that he sees rolling back the regulations as a matter of civil rights.

Viewing it as ‘a civil rights issue’

“If a homeowner wants to sublet their home or a tenant wants to sublet their apartment, they should have the right to do whatever they want to do with it,” said Rev. Nathaniel Legay. “I think it’s a civil rights issue. It’s an individual right; that’s why it’s a civil rights issue.”

Some business owners have said that the influx of short-term visitors has helped their bottom line.

“It brings more diversity, more people to our community,” said Luis Quintero, the owner of El Cocotero, a Venezuelan restaurant in the city’s McGinley Square neighborhood. He added that short-term rentals have provided a steady source of income for some of his friends. “These people come to the neighborhood exploring. One dollar here, one dollar there — it helps our business a lot.”

Ron Simoncini, the executive director of the Jersey City Property Owners Association supports the regulations, which would go into effect at the beginning of next year.

“The ordinance the council passed and that we’re trying to support in the referendum says that local owners will continue to be able to use their homes as Airbnb,” he said. “What the ordinance prevents, and what’s happened in over 2,000 units — that’s 2,000 homes lost to Airbnb — it prevents out-of-town owners and corporate owners from owning portfolios of Airbnb units and then renting them as hotel rooms.”

A recent New York Times article detailed allegations by Airbnb that its relationship with the city only soured after a dispute over campaign donations to Mayor Steve Fulop. Fulop dismissed the allegation, calling it “desperate.”

Proponents of the regulations contend the rentals take up valuable housing stock and monopolize rent-controlled units.

“There’s a reason that Airbnb is pushing this ordinance here in Jersey City,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “It’s because almost 70% of Jersey City residents are renters. There is nowhere else in New Jersey where there are more folks who rent their homes, so this is really the front line of the fight to make sure that we have affordable homes across New Jersey.”