Hey, Montclair, I’ve got news for you. We’re not as cool as we think.
Sure, our hip hamlet has some of the amenities of big city life, like a wide selection of shops that charge $5 for a cup of pour-over coffee, and artisanal cheese boutiques — but even with these refinements, our quaint burg is lacking in something important, something many of our neighbors already have. What is it?
Rent control! (What did you think I was going to say?)
Rent control is essential to hold back the tide of gentrification and preserve affordability and diversity in Montclair. It’s also something that almost 100 other towns in New Jersey already have, including Morristown, West Orange, Verona and Caldwell.
Caldwell? Caldwell has rent control and Montclair doesn’t? Really? I told you we weren’t cool.
In April 2020, the Township Council decided we should join the rest of civilized New Jersey and passed a rent control law. Its main feature is to limit landlords to increases of only 4.25% per year. That’s per year.
Maybe “only” isn’t the right word. Let’s try that again. Its main feature allows landlords to increase your rent by a whopping 4.25% every year. It also limits increases for new tenants to 10%. Landlords over in Caldwell (Caldwell!) are limited to increases of 2.75% on rents over $750, so 4.25% seems petty generous. But Montclair landlords didn’t think so.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify something. The law passed by the council does not include any buildings less than four units. That means if you’re renting out half of a two-family, or a floor in your home, none of this applies to you. Relax. No one is saying you’re a greedy, blood-sucking, parasitical scourge of hard-working renters.
Now, back to the landlords.
The landlords claim that rent control would lower their property values. Of course, they don’t mean lower than the values their properties are now. They mean it would lower the value from the maximum amount they imagine the market will bear. To protect their imaginary future value, the got an injunction to stop the law and filed a petition for a referendum to repeal it.
The landlords go by the name Montclair Property Owners Association, which is a misnomer. They don’t represent “property owners” in Montclair, just a small subset. For example, owners of single- and two-family homes have no stake in this dispute. A more apt name would be Very Rich Landlords Who Oppose Rent Control Association (VRLWORCA), but that wouldn’t be very good branding.
Because of the pandemic, many of the signatures VRLWORCA (sorry, MPOA) collected for its petition were not done in person and the township clerk ultimately found many to be illegible or unrecognizable. An appeals court judge eventually ruled that the clerk should have tried to reach out to those people and verify or “cure” those signatures.
Still with me?
Last December, with the petition still unresolved, Mayor Sean Spiller asked the landlords and the tenants to get together and work things out. The two sides agreed to lower the permitted increase to a whopping 4% a year, in return for no limits at all on increases for new tenants (once in any five-year period).
But the landlords, primarily represented in the negotiations by developer Steven Plofker, still weren’t satisfied. Among other things, they balked at having to register their tenants and the rents they paid. Without that information on record, enforcement is impossible. I guess we’re just supposed to trust them.
To make their case, the landlords have also hired a marketing and crisis management expert named Ron Simoncini, who seems to be doing a thriving business representing ”property owners” around the state.
Meanwhile, the clerk is on the verge of finally certifying the petition, which means the town is headed for a referendum on the original law. Don’t think rent control can survive a referendum? That’s because you don’t know that 40% of our residents are renters. I have a feeling all of them would vote for rent control. Add in everyone who’s not a landlord, and you have a pretty good chance of winning.
But MPOA (otherwise known as VRLWORCA) isn’t done. They’re now suing the township to end the rent freeze put in place during the pandemic (a separate measure from long-term rent control, reauthorized by the council every 90 days since the pandemic began). If they can win that case before rent control can take effect, then they’ll have open season to raise rents with no limit.
Why are they fighting so hard against what is a pretty reasonable rent control plan? Maybe just because they can. Maybe they just hate it on principle.
Principle is what should motivate the town — the principle that renters should not be driven out of Montclair so landlords can maximize their profits. It’s essential to establish rent control before the rent freeze ends. It’s long overdue and a vital step towards keeping Montclair affordable and diverse.
Plus, I’m sick of getting shown up by Caldwell.
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.