By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Since 1991, Montclair’s Landlord-Tenant Housing Committee has informed landlords and tenants of their legal rights and obligations, and assisted in the resolution of disputes.  

Over the years, the 18-member committee helped tenants get their heat turned back on, get leak issues addressed and most deal with skyrocketing rents.

It’s now slated to be reorganized into a new nine-member Landlord-Tenant Advisory Committee with a similar purpose. The new group’s mission — providing information to tenants and landlords concerning their rights and obligations — is clarified in a Dec. 21 Township Council resolution.

Once a month, the existing committee, in an advisory capacity, would hold public meetings in which landlords and tenants would state their cases, with the goal of reaching mutual resolutions between the parties. Any problems not resolved could then be taken to court for judges to decide. 

But in May of last year, mediation hearings were halted by township officials, who sought to revamp the committee’s role. 

A May 25, 2021 email obtained by Montclair Local, from then-Township Attorney Ira Karasick to Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee Chair Deirdre Malloy, states: “As the township attorney, I have been particularly concerned that the [committee] creates expectations that are being seized upon more and more by tenants caught in the current health and housing crises — expectation of results that you are trying to manage but that the township has no power to provide.”

At the public meetings, many of which were over high rent increases, committee members advised landlords and tenants alike on their rights, but had no authority to make actual rulings.

The pandemic put a stop to in-person mediations anyway. But Malloy said the committee’s advisory role has been needed more than ever, with tenants and landlords alike trying to navigate temporary Montclair rent-increase moratoriums that continue today, and the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium on Jan. 1. 

Also confusing to many tenants and landlords is the status of the township’s rent-control ordinance, passed in April 2020, but held up in the courts ever since.  It would limit increases to 4.25% a year or 2.5% for seniors at certain properties — those with four or more units, constructed before 2008 — and would create a rent-leveling board to make sure rent increases comply with the law. 

A group of landlords sued the township, after the township clerk rejected a petition that would have brought the issue of rent control to a referendum. The landlords saw recent victories in court, with judges saying the clerk was wrong to toss out many signatures gathered electronically, but negotiations still continue between officials and the landlords. For now, the ordinance is not in effect, and depending on how those negotiations go, Montclair might see a referendum or new rent control law take the in-limbo version’s place. 

While some landlords have violated the temporary rent-hike moratorium, some tenants have filed false claims about landlords concerning the freeze, members of the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee have said. 

Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, who helped create the resolution for the new committee, said at the Dec. 21 meeting that the old committee would stay in place until a quorum of five members is appointed. Malloy said that she would transition to the new committee as well. Councilman David Cummings, who also worked on the resolution, said it was important that work the existing committee has done over the years in an advisory capacity continue. 

 

THE NEW COMMITTEE

The old committee had 18 members, but the new one will have just nine, with at least four tenants and two landlords.   

The resolution defines the committee’s role as to “monitor and engage in an ongoing review of rental housing issues in the township and make recommendations to the Township Council for the improvement of rental housing accommodations and conditions,” which is similar to the 1991 resolution.

But its role as an advisory committee is more clearly defined than in the original resolution. It says the committee will, “upon request, inform landlords and tenants of their legal rights and obligations and assist in the resolution of disputes.”   

According to the new resolution, the Landlord-Tenant Advisory Committee will now direct landlords and tenants to appropriate sources of information and assistance, including mediation services, and “will not provide legal advice nor engage in any formal process of dispute resolution, including mediation.”  

For now, landlords and tenants seeking advice can call the committee on a hotline of sorts at 973-744-1400, extension 6055 and leave a message. Messages are retrieved on Fridays. Malloy said the committee received seven calls, mostly from landlords, just last week. 

The committee can advise the caller on his or her rights and obligations based on New Jersey’s Tenants Rights Handbook, and refer the caller to recent legislation or where to seek legal services if needed. Seton Hall Center for Justice just recently offered its services for those who qualify based on income, Malloy said.

Meanwhile, Malloy said, the courts are “bursting at the doors” with pending eviction cases, and many landlords are still not adhering to Montclair’s rent-increase freeze or to executive orders that could soon expire. 

As for rent control, that is expected to be settled soon.

A superior court judge had been expected on Dec. 20 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. But no one from the township showed up to the hearing; township officials say it wasn’t calendared during a transition in the township attorney’s office after Karasick retired in December. A new date has not yet been set. 

In mid-December, two landlords, Montclair Housing Commission co-chairs 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. Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, told Montclair Local by email earlier this month that he’d heard negotiations were going well, but said if the matters of rent control and the rent increase moratorium aren’t both settled, more litigation will take place.