By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Update, Thursday, 7:45 p.m.: Montclair officials have rescheduled a special meeting originally expected to occur at 11:45 p.m. on Friday, March 25, to repeal their 2020 rent control ordinance, and consider a replacement. The meeting is now set for Monday at 5:30 p.m.

Montclair’s mayor and council will meet early Monday evening to vote on a negotiated rent control ordinance, and to repeal one that was passed in April 2020 but that never went into effect after a group of landlords petitioned to force it to a referendum. 

The new ordinance expands rent control to more properties than the 2020 version — including two- and three-unit buildings, though owners of some homes that size say they were left out of negotiations. It lets landlords raise rents after vacancies more often than the old version, but limits how often they can do so. And it includes compromises on sticking points that caused negotiations to stall out in February before resuming over the last week.

The announcement of Monday's meeting — set for 5:30 p.m. — came late Thursday, the latest iteration of quickly shifting procedural plans after landlords and tenant advocates announced a deal on terms for a new rent control ordinance Wednesday evening.

Hours after Wednesday's announcement, Mayor Sean Spiller called a meeting for 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 25. That was because if the landlords didn't withdraw their petition by Friday — which they'd only do after coming to terms with the township — the township clerk would have been required that day to schedule the special election. New Jersey’s public meetings law requires 48 hours of public notice for a special meeting — giving a limited window for a Friday meeting once the deal was struck. 

But the township said in an announcement late Thursday that the landlords had agreed to withdraw their petition by 4:30 p.m. on Friday — making the  late-night Friday meeting unnecessary. The clerk previously expected to schedule a special election for May 10, if the petition remained in effect.

Things came together quickly Wednesday night, and it wasn’t immediately clear how many council members even knew a deal had been reached that day. Councilman Peter Yacobellis joined Spiller for a press conference Thursday morning (and had been part of talks this week to reach a deal, along with Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock), but Councilman Bob Russo said he didn’t know it was happening until he saw a notification about the press conference from the mayor's PR representative late Wednesday night.

The council wouldn't have been able to take final action on the deal at its special meeting — regardless of whether it had been Friday, March 25, or Monday, March 28, as now scheduled. Ordinances require two votes — an introduction, and then a hearing, second reading and final vote at least 10 days later. At that second meeting, sometime in April, the mayor and council could also potentially pass a resolution requiring the ordinance to go into effect immediately — instead of 20 days after the second reading, as normally required. Officials haven't yet said if they expect to do so.

In the press conference, held Thursday with tenant advocates and landlords, Spiller said the newly crafted ordinance “reflects the needed protection for tenants, while being respectful of the owners’ positions and needs as well.”

He said the new ordinance would include a rent control board and rent control officers. The recently introduced municipal budget set aside $125,000 for a rent control compliance department, in anticipation of a rent control ordinance going into effect this year. 

“The board will produce the needed regulations, monitor implementation, adherence to the ordinance,” Spiller said. “There’s formal complaint systems and other pieces in place.”

As of Thursday, no version of the new ordinance had been released to the public, but parties on both sides disclosed key terms.

Both sides have said they were seeking a better ordinance than the one passed in April 2020, which sets limits on annual rent increases at 4.25%, and at 2.5% for seniors, on multifamily properties with four or more units and limits rent increases on vacancies at 10%.

“We may not have always agreed on the process here, but we always agreed that there was a problem,” landlord and petitioner Dave Genova said at the press conference. “It took a lot to get us to this point, but I'm really happy we're here today and happy that we can be committed to, as the mayor said, the diversity and inclusion Montclair is so famous for.”

The newly crafted ordinance would allow landlords to raise rents 6% upon adoption of the ordinance, but only if no increase occurred since May 2020, according to Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Owners Association landlord group. Officials haven’t said exactly how much time landlords have after the ordinance passes to apply that rate.

One year later, a 4% increase (2.5% for seniors) could then be implemented, Simoncini said. It also expands rent control to two- and and three-family, non-owner-occupied homes. And instead of the proposed limit of 10% increases upon tenant vacancies, a sticking point for landlords, the new ordinance allows increases after vacancies with no percentage limits, but no more often than once every five years.

And finally, Simoncini said, the new ordinance allows for “reasonable registration requirements without requirement to share personal tenant information.” Simoncini previously said landlords rejected releasing what they considered to be private information about tenants to the township, but didn’t elaborate on what that information included. 

Charles Gormally, attorney for the group of landlord petitioners, said that registration will be streamlined and not list the tenants’ names — only their units. 

Some renters will not fall under any rent control stabilization, as New Jersey since 2008 has prohibited 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.

Tenant advocate Mitch Kahn, who had been negotiating on behalf of the Tenants Organization of Montclair and was also at the press conference, called the new ordinance fair to both landlords and tenants. 

“And I think over a period of the next year or two, you're going to find that it's going to be a very, very satisfactory ordinance that serves the needs of both tenants and landlords,” Kahn said.

The Montclair Property Owners Association has been battling the earlier ordinance since the council passed it in April of 2022. The petitioners — a group of five landlords — successfully asked an Essex County Superior Court judge to place a stop order on it, while they gathered signatures for a referendum. Normally, a petition to force an ordinance to a referendum would have to be presented to the township within 20 days, but the judge allowed the petitioners more time because of restrictions in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

The issue remained stalled while the petitioners sued the township after Township Clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves rejected the petition twice — saying signatures submitted electronically didn’t match handwritten ones on voter rolls. Ultimately, the court ordered her to certify the petition, which she did on March 9. The council formally voted against repealing the 2020 ordinance March 15, starting a 10-day clock ticking until the clerk would have to schedule the special election, which she has said would take place May 10. 

Although the matter of the referendum was settled, the group was still suing the township for what Gormally described as a little over $300,000 in legal fees, on the basis of the judge ruling (and an appellate court agreeing) the clerk was “arbitrary and capricious” in her rejection of the petition. Gormally has said he was optimistic that the judge would rule for the township to pay the legal fees, based on the landlords’ allegations of civil rights violations.

Gormally said that at the last minute, as part of the recent negotiations, the parties were able to negotiate that figure down. The landlords agreed to take 40% of that amount — $120,000 — and split it between covering their legal costs and creating a fund for tenants who experienced temporary setbacks and couldn’t pay the rent.

He said the new ordinance won’t create more affordable housing, but is designed to protect tenants against unscrupulous landlords who set unconscionable rent increases. 

Simoncini said the Montclair Property Owners Association will also withdraw its litigation related to a separate, ongoing rent freeze — first instituted by the council in the early days of the pandemic and then renewed for 90 days at a time, most recently with a vote on March 15 that extended it to May 31. The group had sued the township, hoping to block any new extension of the freeze and to invalidate past votes on the freeze, and was due to meet in court Monday, March 28.

Simoncini has maintained that the Montclair Property Owners Association was always willing to support rent control in Montclair, but wanted a law that protected  the rights of both tenants and property owners.

Toni Martin, a member of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, told Montclair Local Thursday night it took “every one of us on the tenant side to work like our lives depended on it to get here — because they did.”

She praised the mayor and council for its support, saying they “never gave up the ship or the quest for tenant protections” that would keep Montclair diverse. She gave particular praise to  Russo, who she said was “astonishing in his unwavering commitment over many years.” She said she’d been proud to work alongside the group’s president, AhavaFelicidad, and that housing advocates William Scott and Deirdre Malloy had become “patron saints” for tenants.

“We earned this,” Martin told Montclair Local by email. “We deserve this.”

Russo told Montclair Local he’d long been a member of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, and long supported the idea of rent control. 

“We now have a settlement and good compromise that will keep Montclair affordable for our many senior tenants, younger residents and working families who rent apartments, maintaining Montclair's diversity for the future [with] affordable housing available to all,” he said.

Yacobellis, in a statement issued late Wednesday, praised the tenant advocates and landlord group, as well as faith leaders, community organizations, township officials and outside experts and advocates. He said Hurlock had joined him Monday “for a critical meeting with leaders of both sides where two of the last major outstanding issues were resolved between parties.” He gave credit to Kahn for spending "countless hours" on creating rent stabilization in Montclair at no cost to the township.

And he said the mayor and other council members had “spent countless hours on this too, and due credit to all.”

Yacobellis, a former rent control officer for New York state, criticized the 2020 version of the ordinance as “a poorly written law that left most renters unprotected and cost us a lot of money and an incalculable amount of time” fighting in court. The provisions in the new law that extend rent control to two- and three-family homes, so long as they’re not owner-occupied, would nearly double the number of renters who are protected, he said.

Yacobellis had also argued for increases tied to the Consumer Price Index, set annually by a rent control board. Those provisions aren’t in the deal struck by the negotiators. He said in his statement Wednesday township officials would need to watch out for the potential of discrimination against seniors, since their rents are protected with a lower increase percentage.

At the council’s most recent meeting, Carmel Loughman, a former candidate for the governing body, said she was worried about the possibility of including two- and three-unit homes in rent control. She said such a rule would hurt her own property’s value — though she didn’t address the possibility of a provision that exempts owner-occupied buildings at the time.

“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.

Reporter Talia Wiener contributed to this report.

Tenants Organization of Montclair President AhavaFelicidad and Councilman Bob Russo speak at a recent meeting of the organization. The organization and other tenant advocates had said they were prepared to support a rent control referendum expected for May, but that's been averted now that landlords and tenant groups have struck a deal on a new ordinance the Township Council expects to consider Friday night. (COURTESY TENANTS ORGANIZATION OF MONTCLAIR)
Tenants Organization of Montclair President AhavaFelicidad and Councilman Bob Russo speak at a recent meeting of the organization. The organization and other tenant advocates had said they were prepared to support a rent control referendum expected for May, but that's been averted now that landlords and tenant groups have struck a deal on a new ordinance the Township Council expects to consider Friday night. (COURTESY TENANTS ORGANIZATION OF MONTCLAIR)
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