An ordinance authorizing the Township to purchase the property at 34 Union to create permanent affordable housing is now on hold.
The ordinance (O-23-22) was up for a second reading and public comment at the July 18 council meeting.
The decision to hold off on the purchase was made after the Council heard questions and concerns of a resident, neighbors, and members of housing groups regarding plans for the property.
The Township had sought to buy the building on 34 Union Street, listed for sale as a rooming house with 13 rooms, 10 of which are occupied by tenants. The initial plan was to renovate the building and add a new extension in the back to create housing for Montclair’s unhoused population.
The ordinance encountered challenges from the beginning of public comment when residents and neighbors of the property questioned the document’s wording and the lack of budget and information regarding relocation during renovations.
The second reading of the ordinance started with a modification suggested by a neighbor of 34 Union. The correction was made to clarify that the use of the property will be limited to affordable housing.
Wendy McNeil, representing Montclair Housing Commission (MHC), presented a resolution that supported the acquisition of 34 Union by the Township to maintain affordable housing and encouraged the Township to seek funding for the rehabilitation of the building.
McNeil mentioned some of the MHC recommendations for the living conditions of the current residents of 34 Union. “Be advised that the rehabilitation of the residences be done in a manner that does not materially change the current size and use of the current units,” read McNeil.
“All current residents of the Union Street Apartments that are in good standing are entitled to remain tenants of the Union Street Apartments and after the rehabilitation thereof,” said McNeil.
William Scott, chair of the Montclair NAACP housing committee, said a purchase is “at least” a step towards maintaining a piece of property for individuals with low and medium incomes in town, “but we have to make sure we don’t displace any individuals when we acquire property and deem it as affordable. I think it is critical that we take this position.”
Neighbors of the property used their three minutes during public comments to question the proposed purchase, some calling it “rushed.”
John Pinho, a neighbor of 34 Union, questioned the purchase, stating that the building’s structural condition does not justify the $999,000 list price.
Other neighbors expressed their concerns about the need for a relocation plan for current tenants during renovations.
Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings mentioned that tenant’s relocation questions were discussed at a recent community meeting.
“We do not have any place right now. These are things we’d be looking into, but the hope is to identify places in Montclair. We’re not trying to put them out,” said Cummings.
Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams spoke in support of the purchase.
“If we don’t purchase this building, and someone else does, then we have not protected the people who are currently living there, nor are we taking further advantage of the opportunity to expand for some of the people that would be working with the social service agencies,” said Price Abrams.
Alicia Scott, a doctoral student who has lived at 34 Union for over eight years, was the only resident of 34 Union who addressed the Council at the meeting. Scott expressed support for the MHC resolution, but voiced uncertainty about her home if the Township’s plan proceeds.
“If we’re moved, we deserve comfortable housing, not the Salvation Army. That’s not comfortable housing. Shelters are not comfortable housing. How dare you? You don’t live there, but you’re telling us that we should be okay being moved by the Salvation Army? That’s not acceptable,” said Scott.
“We deserve a plan. We deserve it in writing. This is not okay. You don’t even have a plan. You are just talking off the top of your head about what you think should be done. It’s ill-thought-out. It’s unacceptable, and it’s inconsiderate of the people who presently live there,” Scott added.
After other neighbors criticized the plan, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis interrupted public comment to make a motion to table the purchase until the next meeting in September.
“I just have to say this doesn’t feel buttoned up. And I’m not comfortable with it. I need a budget. I need to see a plan,” said Yacobellis.
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock seconded the motion to table the purchase.
Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo was supportive of Cumming’s efforts to help the unhoused population, but stated that the source of the funding for the project is still unclear. He also mentioned that comments by Ms. Scott needed to be addressed.
Hurlock asked Cummings about waiting until the next meeting to authorize the acquisition.
“Is there a reason that we can’t wait for another cycle here? Are we losing an opportunity?” asked Hurlock.
Cummings said another buyer has made the owner an offer for the same property.
“We are committed to servicing the individuals who live there now and maintaining the same lease and arrangements that they currently have. A private developer is not bound to any of that. If we don’t [buy] it, we can lose the property,” said Cummings.
Cummings said, according to Township Planner Janice Talley, an appraisal of the property came in at higher than the market price.
Cummings said, if the ordinance of purchase is tabled, “we most likely cannot and will not be able to purchase.”
Cummings added that questions about the project’s budget would be resolved once the Township creates a partnership with an agency to oversee the project. Earlier, in the meeting, Cummings shared that the Township was in conversations with Essex Community Land Trust.
Mayor Sean Spiller, acknowledging that there were more questions than answers for this project, agreed to table. Cummings and Price Abrams were the only councilors who objected to the decision to table.
“Tabling [the ordinance] for two months it’s definitely too long,” said Price Abrams.
Cummings said he was “extremely disappointed” with the decision to table the ordinance and “losing the opportunity” to purchase 34 Union. “It’s a lot of work and effort that was put forward,” he said, adding that the property presents the ideal size and location to develop affordable housing.
The Future For 34 Union
The decision to wait could mean the end of the opportunity for the Township to own 34 Union. Talley shared with Montclair Local that the other potential buyer provided the seller with a deposit to purchase the building with a July closing date.
“But it is up to the seller if they want to wait to sell the property until September,” added Talley, who also shared that the Township doesn’t have a list of other multi-family buildings that would be suitable to develop affordable housing.
Talley expects to meet with council members to understand better what they are looking for in the plan.
The clock is ticking for the Township to spend money on affordable housing. With all the new developments in the last five years, Montclair has amassed $2.1 million dollars to improve housing in town. If the town doesn’t spend any money within four years, the state could take from the town’s fund and add it to New Jersey’s fund.
“We’re not trying to stop the sale of the building,” said Scott.”
Scott said she voiced her concerns because, for her, the township’s plan is “disruptive” and doesn’t consider the tenants’ particular living needs to relocate them while the upgrades to the property would be made.
“How [is the Town] going to support us according to the law? We’re not in a position to just pack up, go somewhere, live there until the town finishes whatever it’s going to do with the building, and then come back,” said Scott, adding that there are tenants who are older or have disabilities.
Scott said she and other tenants understand now that they need to organize and get informed so their rights are respected by the future buyer, whether public or private.
“It’s just finding out what our rights are. That’s what we’re working on,” said Scott.
On Tuesday, Yacobellis said that while the ordinance will be listed on the September meeting agenda, he anticipates it will be withdrawn. According to Yacobellis, the council’s Economic Development Committee (Spiller, Yacobellis, and Councilor Robin Schlager) unanimously asked Township staff to no longer pursue the acquisition.
“We also expect another buyer to acquire the property in the interim, rendering the purchasing opportunity for the township moot,” Yacobellis said. “If my colleagues want to pursue something similar in the future, I think it’s critical that we have a strategic plan ready to go when a different acquisition opportunity comes up.”
— Maria Monica Fernandez/Montclair Local