By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
news@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Township Council Tuesday formally rejected a petition’s call to repeal its rent control ordinance — enacted in April of 2020 but never put into effect amid a legal dispute with landlords.

And in so doing, it started a clock ticking. The landlords who submitted the petition could withdraw it within 10 days from the vote, if they and tenant advocates resume stalled-out negotiations and come to an agreement on a new rent control measure, to replace the 2020 ordinance. 

Otherwise, Township Clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves — who certified the petition last week — would schedule a special election within 40 to 60 days after that 10-day window passes. Voters would then decide if the 2020 ordinance would go into effect. Bermudez Nieves has previously said the special election would likely occur on May 10.

“I really do hope and exhort you to come back to the table and see if there is a path forward,” Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said before the vote Tuesday night. She said she didn’t want to see a ballot measure for rent control, but was prepared for one.

And Mayor Sean Spiller said if a special election is scheduled, “I will be out there noting, as this township needs to remain diverse, needs to remain affordable, I am absolutely in favor of rent control.”

Only Councilman Peter Yacobellis voted against rejecting the petition’s call to repeal the 2020 ordinance, saying he’d prefer to repeal and replace that law. Spiller, Price Abrams, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and council members David Cummings, Bob Russo and Robin Schlager all voted for the rejection.

But the council was split on a related measure — to extend a separate rent freeze it first enacted in the early days of the pandemic, and has extended for three months at a time since. Tenant advocates have warned that if the freeze expires before rent control could go into effect, hundreds of tenants could be hit with “unconscionable” rent increases. 

In a 4-3 vote — with Spiller, Price Abrams, Russo and Cummings in favor — the council agreed to extend the freeze until May 31. It would have expired at the end of March otherwise.

In December, only Yacobellis voted against extending the rent freeze through March, citing improving economic conditions and concerns that landlords who relied on rent for income were being treated unfairly. He also said he felt the freeze was on shaky legal ground. The Montclair Property Owners Association — the same group supporting the rent control referendum petition — has sued to prevent further extensions and invalidate past ones, and a court date has been set for March 28.

"Whatever you do tonight doesn't really matter,” Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, told the council Tuesday night, noting the upcoming court date.

But Tuesday, Hurlock and Schlager joined Yacobellis in his stance. Hurlock said that when the council first initiated its rent freeze in 2020, “we were in a much different place,” but “it seems like there’s light at the end of the tunnel now.”

Cummings cited his own family’s history — being priced out of an apartment after a rent increase when he was a child. And he said he’d been told by landlords they hadn’t lost money during the rent freeze, but that they just hadn’t made as much as they could.

Russo, though he voted for the rent freeze, said he didn’t like it — that it was needed until rent control could be put in place.

Schlager said she worried about people who rely on income from renting out accessory dwellings or carriage houses.

“It’s unprecedented to have a rent freeze for this long,” she said.

Simoncini, in his call to the council, also argued Montclair’s rent freeze measure was out of date, since Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the state’s public health emergency earlier this month. The resolution itself cites a separate state of emergency that remains in effect as the source of its authority for the moratorium. It does, though, also reference Murphy’s February extension of the public health emergency, without mentioning that it has since ended.

Even if the township hadn’t extended the rent freeze, Simoncini told Montclair Local, the landlords wouldn’t have withdrawn their litigation, since they argue the freeze was unconstitutional all along and are seeking damages. And he said association members have been advised to notify their tenants of rent increases to take effect May 1, if the rent freeze expires.

Past rent stabilization referendum measures in 1979 and 1986 both failed in Montclair. If this year’s also fails, it would be another three years before the council could propose a new rent stabilization ordinance. The Montclair Property Owners Association has been distributing materials arguing the rent control ordinance would ultimately shift the burden for tax increases to single-family homeowners.

Tuesday night, the council heard from tenant advocates even as they were at their own meeting, at coffee shop Trend. AhavaFelicidad, president of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, told council members they were there organizing, and prepared to support a referendum.

William Scott, co-chair of the Montclair Housing Commission, noted the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — telling the council "we do not need to add that burden on the tenants of Montclair.”

Yet that wasn’t the only plea for economic relief.

Carmel Loughman, a former Montclair Township Council candidate, told the council she worried about the possibility of including two- and three-unit homes in rent control — as landlords and tenant advocates considered before their talks ended last month — saying such a rule would hurt her own property’s value. 

"We're in the middle. We're the small property owners of two- and three-family homes, and we're not involved [in the talks],” she said. 

Montclair’s rent-control ordinance passed April 7, 2020, following a year-long lobbying effort by the Tenants Organization of Montclair. The ordinance would set limits on annual rent increases at 4.25%, and at 2.5% for seniors, on properties with four or more units. It would also limit rent increases after vacancies to 10%, which has been a sticking point for some landlords. But there are exceptions: 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.

A committee of petitioners from the Montclair Property Owners Association — Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen — conducted the state’s first-ever electronic petition seeking to force a referendum on the ordinance, 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 and an appellate court both ruled that the clerk had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” and ordered the clerk to certify the petition. She ultimately did so March 9.

According to Simoncini, 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.

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, Simoncini said. The landlords called those conditions unconstitutional. 

In his call to the Township Council, Simoncini said the landlords had sent the governing body a new ordinance, based on the negotiated terms, “with two provisions corrected so that they'd be constitutional.” 

Mitch Kahn, vice president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization and lead negotiator for the Montclair Tenants Advocacy Group in the talks, said the tenant advocates would also craft and send their own new ordinance to be considered.

Spiller said Tuesday night he was always open to a compromise agreement, if one could be worked out, but “it is not [that] one side just gets to dictate, though.”

Simoncini has long said the Montclair Property Owners Association isn’t opposed to rent control in principle — just that it found the terms of the 2020 ordinance unacceptable.

But in a statement to Montclair Local, he also said tenants shouldn’t be shielded from economic impacts at the expense of landlords “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.”