BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair now has a rent increase cap, despite the pleas of a newly formed group of landlords who fought the law, contending its passage should wait until after the pandemic ebbs.
With residents experiencing the recent economic downturn due to COVID-19, council members concurred that a rent stabilization law was needed now more than ever.
A year after a group of renters formed the Tenants Organization of Montclair and spoke out at council meetings telling their stories of new landlords taking over their buildings, raising rents some in upwards of 35 percent, the township council passed a rent control ordinance on Tuesday, April 7, during a teleconference meeting. Mayor Robert Jackson and Councilman Rich McMahon abstained from the vote.
The Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) had circulated a petition to stop the ordinance, introduced on March 10, contending they did not have enough time to have input and creating a law during a pandemic was unconstitutional. The petition has garnered 141 signatures since it was launched last week.
“Renters can’t wait. Now is the time,” Councilman Sean Spiller said.
The association had offered instead a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days by the nearly 800 apartment owners in Montclair, asking the council to postpone the vote.
On March 10, the council introduced the ordinance, which limits annual increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors. The ordinance exempts two- and three-family residences.
Forty-two percent of Montclair’s housing stock is rental units, according to the 2016 Census, with 13.2 percent in two-unit buildings and 10.2 percent in three-to-four units.
Councilwoman Robin Schlager reminded listeners that most neighboring towns had rent ordinances with lower rent increase caps ranging from 2.5 percent to 3 percent.
“Ours is 4.25 percent,” she said.
At the March 24 council meeting, Ron Simoncini of the property owners association told the council that some members were not aware of the ordinance, and they wanted a forum to add their input.
“Some of the members have had properties for over 60 years, most with very modest increase. There is a different story to tell about rent control,” Simoncini said.
Spiller, who introduced the ordinance, said that the discussion has been ongoing for more than a year. He said he welcomed their comments through emails, but that the “process is proceeding.”
In a letter posted on the petition, Simoncini contended that the process had been “inequitable” since the council heard only from tenant advocates during its development.
He claimed the proposed ordinance “features unconstitutional conditions and is unenforceable.”
Association members also said that by approving the ordinance during the coronavirus pandemic, the council would violate the governor’s recent orders on business shutdowns and what local authorities can and cannot do during the shutdown.
During the vote on Tuesday, Councilwoman Renee Baskerville motioned to have the rent cap take effect immediately rather than wait the 20 days allowed by law, stating some landlords may attempt to raise rents and/or fees before the law took effect. She did not get a second, so the motion failed.
The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition the law for a referendum.
The landlords had argued that by passing the law during the pandemic lockdown, it would be impossible to gather the signatures and that “it deprived the voters of their right to collect petition signatures that would force a referendum.”
AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin, president and vice president of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, said the MPOA is a group that has only popped into view in the past two weeks and is “not a functioning organization in the community.”
“Simoncini is a public relations representative for real estate companies who runs seminars on why rent control is a nightmare and acts as a hired gun for landlords whenever rent-leveling efforts near success in New Jersey communities,” Martin said.
Martin contends Simoncini was active most recently in attempting to quash Jersey City’s move to expand and update its existing rent-control ordinance.
“The landlord association proposes a self-imposed freeze on rent hikes during the COVID crisis? Really? Which feckless landlord would try to raise rents now even without the quid pro quo of rent-control delay?” Martin said.
Unsuccessful movements to stabilize rents have a long history in Montclair.
In 1979, a rent-control plan was voted down by residents, 62 percent to 38 percent. A housing survey conducted about 30 years ago, after the Bay Street Station was built in 1981, suggested that rent stabilization be investigated. A special referendum failed in 1986. In 2004, a recommendation for rent stabilization was pulled from the Montclair Affordable Housing Strategy Plan.
More than 6,500 dwellings of Montclair’s housing stock are renter-occupied. Thirty percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent, according to the 2016 Census.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article stated four-unit dwellings were exempt from the law. Only two-and three-family homes are.