Deal struck on Montclair rent control — referendum may be averted
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. See more details about the process ahead here.
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair landlords and tenants have reached an agreement on a new rent control ordinance — potentially avoiding an expected May 10 referendum on the issue.
The referendum would have asked voters if they approve of a rent control ordinance the council passed in April 2020, but that never went into effect after a group of landlords petitioned to force it to a referendum.
“[The] Montclair Rent Control Repeal Committee of Petitioners, supported by the Montclair Property Owners Association, agreed with representatives of various tenant advocates on provisions and language for a new rent control ordinance,” Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association, wrote in email to Montclair on Wednesday, March 23.
Mayor Sean Spiller confirmed that the township had received the negotiated ordinance and was working out the details with the township attorney Wednesday.
The petitioners only have until Friday, March 25, to withdraw their petition before the township clerk would be required to schedule the special election.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the council isn’t until April 5, but early Thursday morning, the township announced a special meeting would be held Friday at 11:45 p.m. — leaving just 15 minutes for what its notice said was a "discussion and vote of the repeal and replacement of the Ordinance O-20-05," the 2020 rent control ordinance. (Editor's note: In the time since this piece was published, the meeting has been rescheduled until 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 28. See more updates about the terms of the deal and the steps ahead here.)
Under normal circumstances, it takes two votes, at least 10 days apart, to pass an ordinance. It’s introduced with a first vote, then a second, final vote is held after a public hearing at a subsequent meeting of the governing body. Spiller said Wednesday the township would have more details on how it would move ahead procedurally by Thursday. He scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning as well.
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, both 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.
The association has been battling the 2020 rent control ordinance, 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%.
After the council passed the ordinance in 2020, the petitioners — a group of five landlords — successfully asked an Essex County judge to place a stop order on it, while they gathered signatures. 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.
But tenant advocates and landlords had been meeting over the last week in an attempt to come up with a new ordinance, with regulations both sides could agree upon — resuming talks that had stalled last month.
According to Simoncini, the groups agreed on an ordinance that would allow landlords to raise rents 6% immediately upon adoption of the ordinance, but only if no increase occurred since May 2020. One year later, a 4% increase (2.5% for seniors) could then be implemented.
The negotiated ordinance 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.” He had previously said landlords rejected releasing what they considered to be private information about tenants to the township, but hadn’t elaborated on what that information included.
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.
The newly crafted ordinance was sent to the township for review, Simoncini said.
“The mayor and council previously said that if we came to an agreement, the township would pass the ordinance. We have delivered the compromise ordinance to the township attorney and now call upon the municipality to convene a special meeting to adopt the ordinance in advance of the expiration of the committee of petitioners' statutory period for withdrawal of its referendum at midnight on Friday, March 25,” Simoncini said.
Toni Martin, a member of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, said 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 Councilman Bob 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."
Councilman Peter 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 Deputy Mayor Bill 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."
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.
Tenant advocate Mitch Kahn, who had been negotiating on behalf of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, has not returned an email sent Wednesday night seeking comment.
Simoncini maintains that the Montclair Property Owners Association was willing to support rent control in Montclair “that was focused on protecting existing residents who were otherwise vulnerable to displacement as a result of fast-rising market rates for rental housing.
“While our economic interest would be to have a free market, as a group, we love this town and its residents, so we are proud to be part of a solution that equitably protects our property while it also stabilizes housing costs for our valued tenants,” he said.