By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Update, March 23: Tenant advocates and landlords have struck a deal on a rent control ordinance.

Tenant advocates and Montclair landlords are back at the table, attempting to come up with a version of rent control that they can agree on.

Landlords say they have conceded some ground on issues that caused earlier talks to fall apart last month. Yet both parties accuse the other of bringing back to the table issues settled in earlier negotiations. 

And time is ticking away. The group of landlords — who petitioned to force an April 2020 rent control ordinance to a referendum, keeping it from going into effect unless voters give it their OK — only have until Friday, March 25, to withdraw that petition. And they will only do so if the parties agree to an alternative ordinance that would be sent to the Township Council for its approval. As of Tuesday, the parties hadn't yet announced any deal.

The petition was finally certified by Township Clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves on March 9. She’d rejected it twice before — saying signatures gathered electronically, allowed due to coronavirus restrictions in 2020, didn’t match handwritten versions on voter rolls — but courts ultimately ordered her to approve it. On March 15, the council voted not to repeal its 2020 ordinance, starting a 10-day clock before the clerk would schedule a special election.

The 2020 ordinance sets limits on annual rent increases at 4.25%, and at 2.5% for seniors, on multifamily properties with four or more units, except in cases where rent control is prohibited by federal or state law (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). It would also limit rent increases after vacancies to 10%, which has been a sticking point for some landlords.

But tenant advocates and the Montclair Property Owners Association landlord group agree the 2020 ordinance could have been better-written — and that’s the version potentially headed to voters. Nieves has said the special election would be May 10.

This will be the second attempt at negotiations. In recent months, landlords and tenant advocates had been negotiating terms for ordinance, but those talks stalled out in mid-February.

Both groups say headway was made in the previous negotiations. According to Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Association, tenant advocates and landlords 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. They also agreed to allow rent control on two- and three-unit non-owner occupied residences, he said.

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. He’s declined to say what sort of information the landlords considered too private to turn over.

The landlords, who have maintained they are not against rent control, called those conditions unconstitutional. 

Mitch Kahn, vice president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization and lead negotiator for the Montclair Tenants Advocacy Group in the talks, called the negotiated terms the most lenient in the state.  

On March 17 — two days after the council’s vote not to repeal the 2020 ordinance — Simoncini told Montclair Local the landlords had given in on allowing a lower increase rate for seniors. He said the landlords also would be willing to allow a provision to hand over information to the township if tenants could opt out.

“That leaves one issue: retroactivity, which is clearly unconstitutional,” Simoncini said.

Kahn, however, said the landlords have many more conditions they want met. 

And now both groups are preparing for an election. The Tenants Organization of Montclair called into the March 15 council meeting to report members were at Trend Coffee and Tea House, preparing a campaign to convince voters to support the 2020 ordinance. Montclair Property Owners Association members sent out a mailing arguing that ordinance would hurt Montclair taxpayers who are the “seventh-highest taxed in New Jersey.” They have also hired a private polling firm to conduct a survey of Montclair residents on rent control.

“We are preparing for an election,” Simoncini said. 

When he called into the council meeting, Simoncini told the council and the public that it’s the committee of petitioners who are holding the cards. 

“It’s the committee that has the right to pull the petition to the pending referendum in response to a negotiated ordinance,” Simoncini said, adding that the landlords should be negotiating with the council, not the tenants. 

When asked if the council would step in, Mayor Sean Spiller told Montclair Local: “While they [landlords and tenants] are at the table, it would be imprudent for me to speak on specific outstanding issues.”

He said he remains committed to the process and is “pleased that the parties are once again having conversations to resolve their differences. I continue to encourage these conversations and hope they will reach a resolution.”

Simoncini didn’t sound optimistic about the two groups reaching an agreement, but said he would rather settle than go to referendum.

“If I thought we could settle, I wouldn’t have just paid for a townwide mailing and a poll right after it to see what we need to do to win a referendum. Now I know what we need to do to win, but I honestly would rather settle,” he said. “The problem is that the tenants don’t accept that it is our choice whether we go to referendum or not. The tenants have the blanket support of the mayor and they exhibit bad faith in negotiation as a result. We are being incredibly reasonable given the position we are in.”

In the meantime, the Tenants Organization of Montclair has begun its own texting, email, social media and phone campaign, using a database available through the Public Montclair Library to create its own mailing lists of renters and homeowners, president AhavaFelicidad said. The national database can be used to collect information such as details on individuals and properties, Toni Martin, another tenant advocate with the organization, said.

Supporters, including tenants and property owners — landlords who support rent control — will be helping with the effort, Felicidad said.