Montclair negotiating with landlords as possibility of rent control referendum looms
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
What could be the final chapter in Montclair landlords’ legal battle over a rent control ordinance is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 20 in Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham’s courtroom.
That’s the day Beacham is expected to act on a state appellate court’s ruling that Montclair’s clerk acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when she rejected a group of property owners’ petition to have voters decide the issue of rent control. The ruling could make way for a referendum on the ordinance, first passed in April 2020 but tied up in the legal fight since.
Update, Dec. 20: No one representing Montclair Township had called into the hearing, conducted by telephone, a few minutes after it was set to start at 10 a.m. Monday, Dec. 20. An attorney representing landlords and Beacham agreed to reschedule the matter.
But on Tuesday, Dec. 15, two landlords, Montclair Housing Commission co-chairs Deirdre Malloy and William Scott, tenant advocate Mitch Kahn and Mayor Sean Spiller met in an attempt to come up with a compromise on rent control in Montclair — and possibly head off a referendum.
Spiller told Montclair Local that as mayor, he is committed to seeing rent control safeguards in place for residents.
“I can confirm that there is productive dialogue underway with all parties to ensure those protections become a reality. It is important to note that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, but I am engaged because it is my sincere hope that a resolution can be reached expeditiously so that residents can rest assured they'll be able to continue to call Montclair their home,” Spiller said.
Emails sent Dec. 16 from Montclair Local to other participants — Malloy, Scott and property owner and referendum petitioner Steven Plofker — seeking comment about the meeting and its outcome have not yet been returned. Spiller did not comment on what was discussed during the meeting or its outcome.
The legal fight began in spring of 2020, when the Montclair Township Council first passed an ordinance to limit annual rent increases to 4.25%, and to 2.5% for seniors. It also capped the increase a landlord could impose after a tenant vacated a unit at 10%. The ordinance only applies to properties with four or more units built before 2008.
Local landlords in 2020 conducted the state’s first-ever electronic signature-gathering petition — allowed because the pandemic interfered with door-to-door petitioning — seeking to force the matter to a referendum. That petition was rejected by the township clerk, who tossed out electronic signatures she found didn’t match handwritten ones on voter rolls, and landlords sued.
On Nov. 30, three appellate judges affirmed Beacham’s ruling that the signatures should have been counted, and sent him back the case for an evidentiary hearing on the matter. He’ll also consider the landlords’ application for the recovery of counsel fees.
In the meantime, the township could also repeal its ordinance, rendering the matter moot. Then, no referendum would take place, and no rent-control measure would go into effect. The township could also amend the ordinance to one that addresses some of the landlords’ objections.
If the Township Council decides not to repeal the ordinance or the parties can’t come up with a mutually agreed upon version after the court date and a certification of the petition, it will have 40 to 70 days to hold a special election.
Councilman Bob Russo wasn’t in on this week’s talks with Spiller, but he said he’d urged all the parties to compromise “after talking to Steven Plofker and small landlord Matt Horrigan, and three tenant leaders.” He said a compromise could help avoid “the cost and division of a referendum and give everyone a win/win.”
The Township Council recently extended its pandemic rent freeze for a seventh time — a temporary measure that must be reauthorized every three months to remain in effect. The Montclair Property Owners Association notified township officials it intends to sue over the continued extensions just after the Dec. 7 vote, though as of Dec. 17, no suit had been filed.
Russo voted for the rent freeze extension; only Councilman Peter Yacobellis voted against it. But Russo said Montclair needs to end the freeze, “implement fair and reasonable rent control and preserve Montclair's affordability and diversity.”
Yacobellis, a former New York City rent control/stabilization officer, sent constituents an email on Dec. 16 describing his own position on rent control — seeking several changes from the ordinance that’s been tied up in the court fight. He proposes rent control for all rental units. He said the “vast majority” of rental units in Montclair would not be covered under the current law, as it doesn’t apply to single homes or two- and three-family dwellings, or construction after 2008 (“think Valley & Bloom, Seymour Street and the Vestry,” he wrote).
He’d like caps on rent increases to be variable and set by a rent leveling board, instead of fixed.
And he said the 10% limit on rent increases after vacancies “can and must be fixed to be more realistic.” The cap on increases after vacancies had been among the sticking points for the Montclair Property Owners Association in its own opposition to the ordinance.
Yacobellis also suggests discounts for renters who sign multi-year leases, and succession rights for children.
“Conversations are on-going and compromise is in reach,” he wrote in the email blast, though Yacobellis said he was not included in the Dec. 15 meeting.
In a brief to Beacham before the Dec. 20 hearing, Charles Gormally, the attorney for the Montclair Property Owners Association and the committee of petitioners, wrote that if the township continues to argue the signatures should be rejected, he’s prepared to have a sufficient number of direct certifications or testimony from signers. Each would say their e-signatures were, in fact, intended to be understood as their signatures, he said.
“Given the preference to avoid disenfranchisement of the signers in exercising this constitutional right, we believe that the outcome of this evidentiary hearing will not change the result already found by this court — to wit, that the petition should be deemed certified and then directed to the governing body for their consideration,” Gormally wrote.
He also told the court that after the appellate decision was handed down, he requested that the township's counsel consider abandoning its position that the clerk acted properly in rejecting signatures, even though the clerk didn’t reach out to signers to confirm their intentions. Appellate judges had said she should have done so when they issued their opinion.
“We hope that the township seriously considers this request to conserve both judicial resources and the attorney fees that will form the basis of our fee application to the court at the matter’s conclusion,” Gormally wrote.
Ira Karasick, the township attorney who represented Montclair for 19 months through the litigation, stepped down from his post Dec. 1, with terminal leave beginning the next day.
The Montclair Property Owners Association’s members have consistently maintained that they have not been part of the rent control discussion.
“Neither Charles nor I are directly involved in any discussions of settlement,” Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association, said.
He deferred comment to the committee of petitioners, two of whom were at the Dec. 15 meeting.
“While we have advocated for amendments to the ordinance since the beginning of this dialogue on rent control, and while news of discussions is a positive development, we are continuing to protect all of our rights under the law related to the certification of the referendum to repeal rent control and MPOA’s opposition to the recently enacted extension of the rent freeze,” Simoncini said.