Right-to-Counsel Jersey City Is a Lesson in Winning Non-Reformist Reforms

North New Jersey DSA activists look back on this year’s successful right to counsel campaign in Jersey City.


About 100 people filled the room on a rainy January night in downtown Jersey City, NJ, piling their plates with catered baked ziti and taking their seats to hear about tenants issues. As the public forum opened, the audience gave resounding applause for a citywide tenants union, listened to neighbors’ horror stories with landlords, and connected the dots around structural housing issues through the politics of democratic socialism. After months of canvassing, DSA made the case for a tenant’s right to legal counsel in a mass meeting of working people from across Jersey City, and recruited new supporters and campaign organizers by the end of the night.

Socialists in Jersey City won Right-to-Counsel (RTC) for tenants with a campaign that garnered a nine-zero vote in municipal government. In what could have been thin reformist advocacy, DSA organizers successfully engaged in true movement politics with a focus on non-reformist reforms. Organizers insisted on a field program to grow popular support and brought class struggle messaging to the doors and mass meetings. 

Non-reformist reforms can build movement politics and organization by developing class consciousness and putting political stakes in the ground. By relying on non-socialist electeds and liberal nonprofits, however, these campaigns are vulnerable to concessions. 

Our public, outsider campaign was seriously limited by the legislative, insider strategy. Concessions demanded by a legal services nonprofit and allowed by a progressive city council ally significantly reduced this victory — a victory that nonetheless redistributes wealth from corporate developers into the pockets of tenant advocates and affordable housing. RTC in Jersey City faced contradictions of organizing within a seemingly progressive city council, deeply influenced by both real estate developers and liberal NGOs. To build greater democratic organization of tenants and rank-and-file workers, and to bypass the contradictions of the insider-outsider strategy, socialist electeds and a mass working-class base are needed.

Because DSA developed and led the RTC coalition, socialists steered our campaign through these contradictions and made them public. DSA’s ability to grow a broad base of support allowed working-class tenants to join and organize for themselves and, in turn, won guaranteed legal defense, paid for by developers.

The Most Expensive City to Rent a Home

When DSA member Joel Brooks ran for Jersey City Council in 2021, organizers saw blight, disinvestment, and neglect in his west side district. Since Brooks’ campaign centered on housing issues, the need for RTC emerged from this near-win electoral race. Housing affordability and living conditions were central issues at almost every door canvassed. From longtime residents whose rent or taxes were skyrocketing to newer neighbors who themselves were fleeing inflated costs in New York or elsewhere, working people pay extraordinary costs for housing without seeing the supposed benefits of development. Unfortunately, Brooks lost by a small margin of 185 votes to the incumbent on the establishment Mayor Steven Fulop’s slate. But this thin margin demonstrated a path forward through class struggle electoral politics in Jersey City. 

Our chapter researched and planned RTC during the winter and spring of 2022, leading to its official launch that summer, at the same time as Jersey City was named the most expensive place to rent a home in the U.S. Landlords and management companies routinely “soft evict” tenants through neglect, in addition to executing illegal, explicit evictions. While NJ had an eviction moratorium during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was lifted in 2022, and our state saw evictions soar again. 

Assessing members’ capacity after Brooks’ race, DSA decided to campaign for RTC’s passage in city council. A ballot initiative approach would have required at least 7,000 signatures and a special election, but DSA did not have the capacity to run such a large-scale, citywide campaign. Plus, the campaign committee’s policy lead advised that it would likely be legally impossible to have voters pass a spending plan via referendum. 

So instead of a citywide ballot initiative, we committed to establishing a DSA-led coalition to pass RTC through our city council. Our core policy principles were universal coverage without means-testing, an established municipal RTC office (instead of exclusively handing money over to legal-service providers), and making developers pay for RTC.

Taking Policy to the People

While drafting legislation and researching, our campaign committed to knocking on doors and taking the fight to the people. We had two main canvassing goals: get people to sign our RTC petition, and bring in new members to grow our organization. 

Unlike our electoral campaign for Joel Brooks, which centered on a specific number of doors knocked within a specific district by election day, the RTC campaign had no win number. We knocked on doors citywide and had to make up our own deadlines. The campaign focused on canvassing neighborhoods buckled under the current wave of disinvestment and evictions. We wanted people to get involved in campaign organization: joining or leading canvasses, coming to regular campaign meetings, knocking their block or building, and coming to speak at City Hall. Dozens of residents came through the campaign, but recruiting people into leadership positions and retaining consistent canvassers was challenging, especially since the campaign had no solid ending win number or end date.

The campaign’s challenging winter — with holiday breaks and limited canvassing — was heated up by the Tenants Town Hall we hosted in mid-January 2023. Originally conceived of as a backup plan in lieu of outdoor fieldwork, the town hall meeting brought almost 100 people to an open forum on the housing crisis where they could learn about RTC and DSA. Hosting this mass meeting was a true highlight, connecting class politics to tenants’ experiences with faceless management companies and aggressive landlords. A majority of attendees weren’t in DSA, some coming just because they saw a flyer or social media post. Additionally, we organized more canvasses and tabling in early 2023 with town hall attendees and planned other major monthly events: our first big city council turnout in February to publicly demand RTC and an extremely fun fundraiser concert in March. The RTC and development-fees legislation seemed near completion with solid first drafts to introduce to the city council, and we were aiming for a late-March or April introduction of the policy and a final vote possibly in mid to late April.

The Call is Coming From Inside the House

The policy we would bring to Jersey City Council was researched and written by DSA members and other housing activists in our campaign coalition. We developed our spending plan to fund RTC — by exacting fees on developers — with help from Fair Share Housing, a legal services nonprofit and RTC coalition member, and with James Solomon, one of two councilmen not on the mayor’s slate. Since we began researching, Fair Share Housing helped us and Solomon write a spending plan to ensure universal coverage. But then, in early 2023, they adopted a legal interpretation that any use of developer fees would need to be means-tested to 80% of Area Median Income (AMI). 

This income restriction was totally anathema to our principle of full, universal coverage for every tenant. Means-testing gets weaponized to divide working people, polarizing “poor people” from “wealthy gentrifiers.” Not only were we knocking on doors of renters under the poverty line, but we were standing alongside tenants from the high-rise Portside Towers who were doggedly demanding justice in the face of their illegal rent hikes. The stirrings of a broad tenants movement were evident in Jersey City, between RTC, Portside folks, and other organizing targeting a specific, notorious developer; if there were to be any tenants’ movement, it was one that transcended income brackets and an individualistic gentrification narrative.

Why did Fair Share Housing suddenly pivot to these fees being income-restricted? Their nonprofit work depends on suing suburbs that fail to use development fees to create enough affordable housing for low-income people. Fair Share feared their lawsuits would be weaker if such development fees went toward helping working people above 80% AMI obtain legal counsel in eviction cases.

The Fair Share Housing lawyers who helped determine a specific funding mechanism for RTC, one that made developers pay and provided universal coverage for all tenants, turned around just before the legislation was introduced, and forced income restrictions onto RTC, even though they were RTC coalition partners. Unfortunately, our main council ally, James Solomon, accepted Fair Share Housing’s legal interpretation around means-testing; however disappointed he may have been, Solomon was afraid of losing their support should a court case be brought against us by developers after passing RTC. 

Solomon’s decision assumed that, one, a mass base of working people is not worth developing to defend the most robust version of this reform and, two, the passage and legal defense of the reform are ends in themselves, rather than opportunities to empower working people and clarify the lines of class conflict. The decision betrays a fundamental progressive-liberal distrust of popular mass politics to advance housing reform; if people need greater power to take on the housing crisis, will legislators and lawyers be the agents of that empowerment, or will the people themselves?

Internally as a campaign, we discussed whether we had leverage to challenge this concession. We concluded that, no, unfortunately, there was virtually no leverage to force means-testing language out of the legislation. Namely, it would require winning universal coverage through a ballot initiative, for which we didn’t have enough capacity. We managed to win language where RTC would cover every tenant universally if we can win alternative funding sources open up in the future.

This concession is the byproduct of two problems: First, DSA relied on a progressive ally in city council in order to pass RTC. Had we elected Joel Brooks, a DSA councilperson could have been the RTC sponsor and helped take a public stand against Fair Share Housing’s self-serving move. Second, DSA established a coalition of various organizations to pass RTC, but this coalition basically existed in name only. DSA exclusively ran the field program, DSA members comprised the whole leadership committee, and DSA organizers liaised between Solomon, other council people, and the broader campaign. We attempted to bring in leaders from other organizations that signed on to be coalition partners. However, we never got to the point of genuine decision-making alongside the partners. Without other left and progressive groups taking ownership of the campaign, we were isolated in our ability to challenge the coalition’s rogue partner, Fair Share Housing. 

Policy or Politics 

Most of the campaign was underscored by a concern that the pro-developer Democrat Mayor Fulop would jump on RTC before DSA built enough mass popularity and that Fulop would co-opt the legislation to water it down significantly. We never considered that a legal services nonprofit, signed on as a coalition partner, would be the true force behind conceding to means-testing. Even after accepting this, the campaign continued to demand a path to universal coverage and publicly called out the conservative legal interpretation. 

It’s unclear whether DSA could have taken RTC directly to voters and won this policy through the ballot box. It’s unclear whether we could have gotten it on the ballot at all. Ultimately, RTC in Jersey City politicized housing, drew clear lines around our class enemies, and engaged scores of working people inside and mostly outside DSA who took action to expand tenants’ rights. This campaign leaned heavily on a small core group of committed organizers and a large pool of people who jumped in and out to support. However, RTC lacked a robust second tier of activists who felt committed to taking on consistent roles and responsibilities. Without this, without other organizations feeling responsible for the campaign, and without any socialist elected, the legislative push was always on shaky ground; in fact, it’s incredible that even more concessions weren’t made.

This is because DSA played an adversarial role, popularizing the conflict between working people and corporate real estate developers. “The Left can’t be afraid of upsetting the political establishment,” said Nick French and Neal Meyer in a 2022 article for The Call, “and we won’t win by trying to play nice with our political enemies. Our potential power lies in building a mass base, rooted in the labor movement and in working-class communities.”

Working people across Jersey City received the adversarial message, bought in, gave hours of testimony at City Hall, knocked thousands of doors, made thousands of phone calls, and turned to their neighbors for strength. Whatever assets a non-reformist reform campaign may have — socialist electeds, active partner organizations, more members in consistent roles — all this amounts to nothing if the campaign backs down from a critical, confrontational position.

Jake Ephros and Steve Coco are members of North New Jersey DSA and DSA's Bread & Roses caucus. Jake was also the co-chair of Jersey City's Right to Counsel campaign.