Judge prohibits Montclair’s rent control enforcement during state of emergency
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
An Essex County Superior Court judge has granted a temporary stay blocking the implementation of Montclair’s newly created rent control ordinance.
The order, signed by Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham on Friday, April 17, prohibits the town from enforcing the provisions of the rent control ordinance temporarily.
The stay came 24 hours after a group of Montclair property owners filed suit seeking an injunction against Montclair Township until the state of emergency passes, plus 20 days, in order to give the property owners a chance to petition for a referendum on the issue.
The rent control ordinance was passed in a teleconferenced council meeting on April 7, culminating a year-long lobbying effort by the Tenants Organization of Montclair, a group of renters who has spoken out at council meetings against new landlords taking over their buildings and, the organization says, raising rents in some cases as much as 35 percent.
The committee of petitioners, which includes Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, filed the five-count complaint in Superior Court Thursday, April 16, to request the injunction.
All five petitioners are members of the Montclair Property Owners Association, a group of landlords who are fighting the ordinance and seek to force a referendum on rent control. The group formed in response to the ordinance’s introduction on March 10.
Ultimately, the MPOA argued that gathering signatures for a petition during a pandemic is not possible, that the introduction of the ordinance on first reading on March 10 was not properly advertised, and that its final passage during a teleconferenced council meeting did not allow the residents their due process.
The ordinance, which would limit annual rent increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors, was expected to take effect 20 days after its approval, on April 27. The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition the law for a referendum.
Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler LLC, attorney for the committee, said that gathering the signatures cannot be carried out during the social distancing emergency measures now in place.
“The lawsuit will vindicate the substantive right of protest that Montclair residents have and provide a reasonable opportunity for the residents to exercise these rights when the public emergency has ended,” he said.
The MPOA includes 47 multi-family property owners representing 1,175 properties, said Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association. Approving the law during a pandemic was unconstitutional, he said.
The association had asked the council to postpone the April 7 vote on the ordinance, and offered instead for apartment owners in Montclair to impose a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days.
The group had sent suggested edits of the ordinance to council, but did not receive feedback, said Simoncini.
Gormally further contends that the council also violated the Sunshine Act by voting on the ordinance’s introduction at the March 10 meeting when it was listed as a discussion-only item on the agenda.
A court date of June 3 has been set by the judge, in which he will decide whether to continue the stay and/or look at the validity of the ordinance passed during the pandemic, said Gormally. That hearing could be held remotely if the courts are still closed.
“While the plaintiffs are reluctant to engage in litigation during a state of emergency, they must promptly act to vindicate the public interest and its statutory power to petition the government to redress governmental action through referendum,” Gormally said.
The court materials were sent in advance to the municipality in an effort to persuade the council to stay the ordinance voluntarily, Gormally said, with no response from town officials.
“When we learned of the ordinance, we proposed not increasing rents as a good-faith gesture until the council could open a genuine dialogue about rent control in Montclair from which all property owners, including homeowners, were excluded,” said Simoncini. “Instead of entertaining the offer, the council enacted a patently unenforceable and inequitable ordinance without even considering a single amendment, revealing their bias against property owners of all types.”
Simoncini said after discussions with several landlords, “each had indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90 days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the entire membership is determined to fight back on this until property owners are treated equally under the law.”
Tenant organization members said that the landlords had almost a year to get involved in the process and chose not to.
“We expect the township to vigorously defend the implementation of our ordinance. The Tenants Organization of Montclair Advocacy Group will not back down from doing what is right - especially during these unprecedented times. They - the uncaring and unconscionable -can’t take away what tenants vitally need,” said the organization’s president, AhavaFelicidad.
During the meeting in which they passed the ordinance, council members said that due to the economic difficulties residents are experiencing with COVID-19, they felt renters needed the ordinance now rather than later.
Councilman Sean Spiller, who had introduced the ordinance that was voted on, said renters simply couldn’t wait.
Emails sent from Montclair Local to Spiller, both last Friday and today concerning the suit, were not answered.
In order to get a rent control referendum on the ballot, based on the previous election numbers of 6,798 votes cast, the petitioners would need 1,019 signatures for a special election and 680 for it to be placed on the next general election ballot.
Other attempts to stabilize rents in Montclair have failed.
In 1979, a rent control plan was voted down by residents, 62 percent to 38. A housing survey conducted about 30 years ago, after the Bay Street Station was built in 1981 and the area, suggested that rent stabilization be investigated. A special referendum failed again in 1986. In 2004, a recommendation for rent stabilization was pulled from the Montclair Affordable Housing Strategy Plan.
More than 6,500 dwellings — about 44 percent of Montclair’s housing stock — are renter-occupied. Thirty percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent, according to the 2016 Census. The ordinance would only pertain to multi-families of four or more.
Sixteen Essex County towns have rent control in some form.