Linda Moss

Technically Montclair has fulfilled its affordable housing obligations, but skyrocketing rents, home prices and property taxes are driving residents away, threatening the township’s diversity, according to a panel held Tuesday night.

Instituting rent control and finally building on land that the township has dedicated to affordable housing were some of the solutions offered at a forum sponsored by the Montclair Justice Coalition, a grassroots group formed last October to address diversity and social issues and mobilize residents.

At the gathering, panelists Renée Baskerville, Fourth Ward Councilwoman; and William Scott, chair of the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee and co-chair of the Montclair Housing Commission, also discussed the Township Council’s efforts to set aside affordable housing for town residents and municipal employees.

Baskerville summed up the common theme of the night when she said she fears that people who have resided in Montclair for decades, whose families have shaped the township, may now no longer afford to live in neighborhoods that were once affordable to them.

“As I get feedback across the community, a lot of people have those same concerns, about will black and brown people be pushed out of Montclair because the developers are coming in,” Baskerville told an audience of about two dozen people at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park.   

That’s because of the looming construction, particularly along Bloomfield Avenue, with redevelopment by the Wellmont Theatre and Lackawanna Plaza slated to bring in upscale residences: the gentrification of the township.

Litigation has been going on for years regarding the state Council on Affordable Housing, and in January the state Supreme Court ruled that towns must fulfill affordable housing obligations that accumulated over a 16-year period while the housing issue was in the courts. At this point Montclair, unlike many other municipalities, appears to have  fulfilled its COAH obligations, but there is still a need in the township, according to Scott.

“Montclair has basically been really a leader in affordable housing,” he said. “You can’t take that away from them. My only concern is, from a moral standpoint, there’s always room for improvement.”

But after the panel Scott said that although the Fair Share Housing Center has said Montclair has met its affordable-housing requirements, the courts are calculating the final obligation that towns across the state will have, and that could impact Montclair, Scott said.

The Fair Share Housing Center is a New Jersey nonprofit that, according to its website, works to  defend housing rights of the poor.

Apart from state-mandated COAH obligations, Montclair has an ordinance that requires developers to dedicate 20 percent of their housing units to affordable housing. Scott said that the council wants half of that, 10 percent, made available to township residents, and is exploring having the other half, 10 percent, be set aside as workforce housing for people employed by the township.

That way, town employees such as teachers, police and firefighters “could live here and thrive and live where they work,” according to Baskerville.

But both Scott and Baskerville said that the initiative regarding the township’s workforce is not a fait accompli.

“That program has yet to be worked out,” Scott said, with Baskerville adding that the council is seeking legal opinions on the matter.

During her remarks Baskerville pointed out that the township had several lots on Wildwood Avenue near Brookdale Park that the prior council in 2011 slated for affordable housing. One was designated for a low-income unit and the other for a moderate-income unity. But she added that there has been “very little momentum moving towards that.”

When an attendee complained that his rent had skyrocketed, the discussion turned to rent control. Baskerville said that when new developments are charging rents ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 a month, it prompts local landlords to raise rents for their tenants. But past efforts to institute rent control in Montclair have failed, according to Baskerville and Councilman-at-Large Bob Russo, who attended the forum.

Baskerville said that she has floated the idea of rent control to the council and that the feedback was “that will never fly in Montclair.”

Years ago there was a local referendum on rent control that was voted down by a large margin, Russo said. He also told attendees that a friend of his recently came to him seeking help because her daughter, who lives in Long Branch, had been notified that her rent was going up to $1,400 from $800 a month.

When Baskerville asked Russo if he would support the council instituting rent control, Russo said, “I’m not saying we should do it, but I think we should think about it.”

Panelist Deirdre Malloy, property compliance manager with HOMECorp, suggested the council put an ordinance in place that would set a 4 percent cap on rent increases, which she described as reasonable. HOMECorp is a nonprofit that works to preserve housing choices for Montclair residents.

One of the Justice Coalition’s leaders, Al Pelham, told the attendees that if they want action on rent control they need to organize and let local officials know. Both he and Scott cited the outflux of African-Americans from the township, in part because of the high cost of living here. According to the 2010 census, Montclair’s black population declined 18 percent during a 10-year period.

“The people that are being replaced    where’s the outrage?” said Pelham, who is president of the NAACP’s Montclair branch. “We to have to mobilize. And we have to say, guess what, this town council, if you’re not going to be voting for rent control, guess what, you’re not going to be sitting in those seats.”