By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Mayor Sean Spiller says he expects Montclair’s 2020 rent control ordinance to go to a referendum, after talks broke down between tenant advocates and landlords who’d been trying to avoid just that.

Terms for a replacement of that ordinance discussed to date — before talks fell apart last week — would have offered Montclair landlords the “most generous rent stabilization in any town in New Jersey,” Mitch Kahn, one of the tenant advocates involved in the discussions, said.

And Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, said that the landlords who petitioned in 2020 to force the matter to a referendum — then sued the township when the clerk rejected electronic signatures that she said didn’t match those on voter rolls — “always insisted that simple amendments to the rent control ordinance” would be considered. He said with a compromise in place, the landlords would withdraw their petition and another measure could be voted through by the council instead.

Simoncini, at Tuesday’s Township Council meeting, said the terms negotiated so far would have made for an “excellent version of rent control” — except for three sticking points the landlords argue are unconstitutional. But Kahn told the council that significant concessions had already been made by tenant advocates, and said if the sides can’t come to an agreement, putting the 2020 version of the law to referendum would be best. 

“If you’d like us to rejoin negotiation that’s fine, but we want a time limit on referendum certification [of the landlords’ petition, leading to a referendum],” he said.

And Spiller said at the meeting the landlords couldn’t claim to have worked out a deal if the tenants weren’t onboard.

“We do hear the request from Mitch and we will look at that and move forward as appropriate,” he said.

Meanwhile, Spiller told Montclair Local before the meeting, the council might consider extending its temporary rent freeze — a separate measure from permanent rent control, reauthorized by the council every 90 days since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, citing New Jersey’s ongoing state of emergency for the authority to do so. Several council members had said when they last reauthorized the freeze in December that they were
reluctant to do so.

Without a new authorization, it’ll expire after March 31 — which Kahn argues could be catastrophic to renters who could see immediate increases, some as high as 30%, unless permanent rent control is in place. Councilman Peter Yacobellis, the only member of the governing body to vote against the rent freeze in December, said he might consider re-upping it for a shorter term.

2020 law looms

The ordinance passed by the council in 2020 — the one that would be on the ballot — would limit annual rent increases to 4.25%, and to 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. It would also limit rent increases after vacancies to 10%, which has been a sticking point for some landlords. 

The law was originally expected to take effect 20 days after the 2020 vote, but the landlords’ petition and lawsuit put it on pause. Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham eventually ruled that the clerk had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in tossing out the signatures, and an appeals court upheld his decision. Absent a deal with the landlords, those rulings would ultimately lead to the referendum.

The case was sent back to Beacham’s courtroom for an evidentiary hearing on Dec. 20, but the township failed to appear. In the time since, Kahn, who has negotiated hundreds of local rent control ordinances throughout the state, has been negotiating on behalf of the Tenants Organization of Montclair in talks with Montclair Property Owners Association members.

But on Thursday, Feb. 10, the petitioners were notified the tenants committee was withdrawing from talks.

Kahn said the terms discussed in negotiations so far would have been far less restrictive to landlords than those from the 2020 ordinance.

The landlords group previously notified Montclair officials it planned to sue over the last extension of the rent freeze. Simoncini has told Montclair Local if the dispute over the freeze and the permanent rent control ordinance couldn’t be resolved, more litigation would be coming.

The Montclair Property Owners Association has also said it intends to seek legal fees from Montclair, alleging a civil rights violation.

Kahn said the shared objective was a compromise that would avoid a referendum, predicated on the landlords not pursuing those legal fees or more litigation.

“We were willing to make considerable concessions, but what they wanted would create an unenforceable rent control. … If they walk away from this, they have to be misguided,” Kahn said.

Terms on the table

According to both Simoncini and Kahn, the parties had made some headway. Kahn did not want to elaborate, saying he didn’t want to further negotiate through the press. 

But Simoncini said the parties had agreed upon a lower maximum increase of 4%. Instead of rent control applying only to apartments with four or more units, two- and three-family non-owner-occupied units would be included. They also agreed to nixing the overall 10% rent increase limit on apartments vacated by tenants — and instead would allow increases after vacancies with no limits, but no more often than once every five years. 

The sticking points were over three other items the tenants advocates wanted, Simoncini said. The tenants group attempted 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 on tenants as part of the landlords’ registration process with the town, Simoncini said.  He said those provisions would “create disharmony between landlords who provide safe and affordable housing, and the tenants who reside in the township.” 

He said that a discount for any group is price distrimination and illegal. The landlords also argued against releasing any personal information about their tenants and questioned the legality of such a requirement. 

Kahn said at least six municipalities with rent control set aside lower increases for seniors. On its landlord registration form, East Orange asks for each tenant’s name and whether tenants are disabled or seniors. Annual rent increases are also limited to 2% for seniors.

Simoncini also said making rent control retroactive could also lead to legal problems.

Under the temporary rent freeze, some landlords did send out rent increase notifications as leases expired, he said. Tenants who received notices would see their rents increased once the moratorium expires, but those increases wouldn’t be retroactive.

He said the committee of petitioners remains hopeful that the council will evaluate a proposed compromise from the landlords, despite the withdrawal of the tenants from the bargaining table.

“Doing so will not only result in reasonable rent control in Montclair, and in the withdrawal of the referendum, but settlement of legal issues associated with the rent freeze,” Simoncini said

‘Fixes many of the flaws’

Yacobellis told Montclair Local it would be a mistake for the original ordinance to go to referendum. If it is voted down, the township would have to wait another three years to create another ordinance, “which would be a disaster for tenants and affordability,” he said.

“I can't unsee what has become a very good nearly agreed-upon ordinance that fixes the many flaws, which both sides have pointed out, in the original ordinance and would expand rent control to two- and three-family rentals and cover thousands more families,” Yacobellis said. “Montclair residents should not be forced to vote yes or no for a flawed ordinance that we now know both parties want to see changed, and leaves out the majority of renters in Montclair, when we're so close to having one that would cover most.”

Past rent stabilization referendums in 1979 and 1986 both failed in Montclair. 

“The tenants’ insistence to force the issue to the ballot will likely result in the resounding elimination of all rent control in the same way two previous township votes rejected rent control, and likely result in the township being exposed to a claim that it owes the committee reimbursement of its attorney fees,” Simoncini said. “We are trying to do the right thing here.”