Montclair’s rent control fight now headed to appeals court
Montclair has received permission to appeal a judge's ruling on its rent control ordinance.
Appellate Division judges have also stayed a Superior Court judge's earlier order, which would have forced Montclair to either put its rent control rules before voters in a special election, or to repeal the rent control ordinance the township council passed a year ago.
“The [Township] Council and I are very pleased with this decision,” Mayor Sean Spiller said in an announcement from the township. “Naturally, it is our hope that the court rules in our favor, and in the favor of residents currently subject to unconscionable rental increases. Our neighbors living in rented housing will be afforded greater financial stability to be able to remain in their homes and better plan for the future.”
Montclair first passed its rent control ordinance in April of 2020, limiting rent increases to 4.25%, and to 2.5% for seniors, with some exceptions. It was originally expected to take effect later that month.
At the time, a judge granted a group of landlords known as the Montclair Property Owners Association a stay on the ordinance, while they pushed forward with an electronic signature-gathering petition — the first in the state, conducted while restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic made in-person signature collection difficult. They collected enough signatures to force the matter to the ballot, but township clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves rejected several hundred signatures in that petition, as well as some in a later "cured" petition, finding the signatures didn't match those in voting records. Ultimately, she found, the cured petition came up 18 signatures short.
The two sides have fought in court since, with Essex County Superior Court Judge Jefferey Beacham most recently ordering the clerk on March 16 to certify the petition. As a consequence, the township would have had to schedule a special election or get rid of the ordinance entirely.
It's that decision that's now on hold until further notice from the court, and that the township will appeal.
Montclair has until June 1 to submit its brief to the appellate court, the township said Friday. The Montclair Property Owners Association’s own brief must be submitted by June 21, and any reply brief must be handed in to the court by July 1.
Separately, 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 landlords argued they should be entitled to summary judgment, since the Superior Court had already ruled that the clerk’s actions were “arbitrary or capricious. They're also seeking damages for their legal costs.
On March 16, the council also extended a rent freeze ordinance for the third time, placing a temporary moratorium on rent increases during the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency.
— Louis C. Hochman, with past reporting by Jaimie Julia Winters