By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A petition to bring the issue of rent control to Montclair voters in a referendum has been certified by the township clerk, after a nearly two-year battle township officials fought to avoid such a special election.
Clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves submitted the certification to the Township Council on Wednesday, March 9, according to a copy of the certification provided to Montclair Local by the Montclair Property Owners Association.
The certified petition formally calls on the council to repeal the rent control ordinance it first approved in April 2020, but that was never put into effect amid a legal dispute with the landlords group. If the council doesn’t act within 20 days from the clerk’s submission — or if it still rejects the petition, and the petitioners don’t withdraw their petition in the 10 days after that — the clerk would schedule a special election somewhere between 40 and 60 days from that point.
At a March 1 council meeting, Nieves said that the special election would most likely take place on May 10.
“Yesterday the Township of Montclair notified the committee of petitioners that it had certified our petition for referendum, which would result in a vote on rent control after a statutory period during which the council has the opportunity to either repeal its own ordinance or provide an alternative that would persuade the committee of petitioners to withdraw its referendum,” Montclair Property Owners Association Executive Director Ron Simoncini, said in a March 10 statement. “An election would probably occur sometime in the beginning to middle of May.”
In recent months, landlords and tenant advocates had been negotiating terms for a new rent control ordinance that the Township Council could consider — potentially convincing the committee to adopt a replacement for the April 2020 ordinance, and the petitioners to withdraw — but talks fell apart last month.
Montclair’s rent-control ordinance was passed in a teleconferenced council meeting on April 7, 2020 following a year-long lobbying effort by the Tenants Organization of Montclair, which sought rent stabilization. The ordinance would set limits on annual rent increases at 4.25%, and at 2.5% for seniors, on multifamily properties with four or more units, except in cases where rent control is prohibited by federal or state law. It would also limit rent increases after vacancies to 10%, which has been a sticking point for some landlords. State law since 2008 prohibits rent control on new buildings for 30 years after the date construction is completed or until after an initial mortgage is amortized, whichever comes first.
It’s that 2020 ordinance that would go before voters in the May election.
The petitioners, who are members of the Montclair Property Owners Association, are Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen. They filed a complaint in Superior Court in April 2020 to request an injunction that kept the ordinance from going into effect while they gathered signatures to bring the issue to a referendum. Normally, such a petition would have to be submitted within 20 days of an ordinance being adopted, but the petitioners cited the difficulties caused by restrictions in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
They then conducted the state’s first-ever electronic petition for a referendum, allowed under emergency orders for the pandemic.
After the township clerk rejected their petition, and an amended petition, over electronic signatures she found didn’t match handwritten ones in voter rolls, the petitioners sued the township. Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham eventually ruled that the clerk had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” and ordered the clerk to certify the petition. The township appealed Beacham’s decision and lost.
The referendum petition, first submitted in September 2020, needed 1,020 validated signatures from Montclair voters — or 15% of the votes cast in Montclair at the then-most recent election with General Assembly seats up for a vote — to prompt a referendum. The cured petition had lacked 18 certified signatures, the clerk said.
According to Simonicci, tenant advocates and landlords in recent negotiations had come to terms on a 4% overall rent increase limit, and agreed to do away with the 10% rent increase limit on apartments vacated by tenants, instead allowing increases after vacancies with no percentage limits, but no more often than once every five years. They also agreed to allow rent control on two- and three-unit residences, where the April 2020 ordinance would have only applied rent control to properties with four or more units.
But the landlords group had problems with the tenants advocates’ attempts to set a 2.5% rent increase limit for seniors, to make the ordinance retroactive to April 2020 and to require landlords to release private information about tenants as part of the registration process with the township, Simonicci said. The landlords called those conditions unconstitutional.
Tenant advocates are also lobbying for — and landlords are suing to prevent — the extension of a separate, temporary rent increase freeze the township first authorized in May of 2020, and has reauthorized every three months since, citing authority under New Jersey’s ongoing state of emergency. The latest authorization is set to expire March 31, and tenant advocates say hundreds of tenants will be hit with “unconscionable” rent increases without rent stabilization in place.
Last week, the group of landlords asked a judge to stop further rent freeze extensions and to nullify past freezes. A court date is set for March 28.
“Elementally, with the municipality raising taxes on homeowners at will, with inflation at 7% and with incredible burdens on property owners with higher fuel costs and wages for employees, what is the justification that one set of Montclair residents should be shielded from any impacts of the economy while others bear the entire burden?” Simonici said in the statement Thursday.
The Township Council is expected to place a resolution that would extend the freeze once again, to May 31, on its March 15 agenda — keeping the measure in place until after the anticipated referendum date.
Multiple council members had expressed reservations about extending the rent freeze during the last vote, in December, though only Councilman Peter Yacobellis voted against it, both saying that he thought the rent freeze was on uncertain legal ground and citing signs of economic recovery since the start of the pandemic.
Without an extension of a rent increase freeze and without rent stabilization, there would be no limits to increases that landlords could set.
“Gov. [Phil] Murphy’s recent cancellation of the emergency order related to COVID-19 leaves the municipality with little to defend an extension of the rent freeze,” Simoncini said in his statement, referencing the governor’s recent announcement he was lifting a public health emergency for the pandemic. A separate state of emergency declaration remains in effect. “However, an end to the rent freeze will not result in withdrawal of our litigation, as we believe the rent freeze was unconstitutional and we will be seeking damages on behalf of our membership. We have advised our membership that they should notice by March 31 of rental increases to take effect May 1, should the rent freeze expire. They will have the right to increase rents at their discretion, although we advised that unconscionable rent increases are subject to judicial review, rollback and penalties.
Past rent stabilization referendums in 1979 and 1986 both failed in Montclair. If this year’s referendum fails, it would be another three years before the council could propose a new rent stabilization ordinance.