Montclair moves forward on rent control appeal
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair Township has asked a judge to stay his ruling that could ultimately put rent control rules on the ballot, while the township pursues an appeal.
The township filed a motion March 25 seeking the stay, after a judge ordered it to certify a petition by a landlord group — requiring it to either put the issue before voters or repeal a rent control ordinance first passed a year ago altogether. The township filed another motion, seeking permission to appeal the ruling itself, on April 5.
“The stay would stop the clerk from scheduling the referendum. It would not prevent the Township Council from repealing the ordinance if it so chose to,” Township Attorney Ira Karasick in his brief to Essex County Superior Court Judge Jefferey Beacham.
The hearing on the request for a stay has been scheduled for April 16.
Beacham on March 16 reissued an earlier order, directing Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves to certify the landlord group’s petition, which she did that night. That effectively re-started a 20-day clock for the township council to either repeal the ordinance or start the process of scheduling the special election, to be held within 40 to 60 days. Beacham's ruling vacated his own previous order from Jan. 29, when he had instead backed the clerk in rejecting the landlord group’s petition, after hearing further arguments on March 2.
The ordinance was originally to take effect 20 days after its approval on April 27, 2020. The 20-day delay in implementing the ordnance gives residents time to gather signatures to petition for a referendum, which proved difficult during a pandemic.
The Montclair Property Owners Association members filed a motion last April to stay the ordinance, while they conducted their petition.
Last September, the group submitted 1,530 signatures to the township electronically — more than 500 above the threshold to get the measure on the ballot — but the clerk rejected several hundred signatures. When the landlords submitted a second, “cured” petition, Nieves rejected 27 signatures because she found they didn’t match the signatures in voting records. Ultimately, she found, the cured petition came up 18 signatures short.
“A stay [on the judge’s most recent ruling] would not result in any harm to the plaintiffs because [the ordinance] remains suspended. ... The stay might have the ancillary benefit of allowing more time for any possible resolution to reach fruition,” Karasick wrote.
The Montclair Property Owners Association maintains it is not against rent control, but seeks changes to three parts of the ordinance that the group opposes: a 10% limit on a vacancy increase, a requirement that a unit be free of any housing-code violations before an increase can be made, and a $250 fee for vacancy rent increases. The group’s attorney, Charles Gormally, said attempts to discuss their concerns on the three issues have remained unanswered by township officials.
On March 18, the landlord group filed another suit against the township and the township clerk, this time claiming a civil rights act violation. The suit asks for a summary judgement, meaning that since the court has already ruled that the clerk’s actions were “arbitrary or capricious,” the suit is based on undisputed facts, Gormally said. The suit also looks for the landlords to be named as the “prevailing party” so that the group can seek damages in the form of their legal costs. That hearing has been postponed from April 16 to April 30.