Property owners sue Montclair over rent control ordinance
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A handful of property owners have filed a suit against Montclair Township attempting to place a stay on the newly created rent-control ordinance until the state of emergency passes.
The ordinance was passed in a teleconferenced council meeting on April 7, culminating a year-long lobbying effort by the Tenants Organization of Montclair, a group of renters who has spoken out at council meetings against new landlords taking over their buildings and, the organization says, raising rents in some cases as much as 35 percent.
The committee of petitioners, which includes Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, filed the five-count complaint today, Thursday, April 16, in Essex County Superior Court to request an injunction of the recently adopted rent control ordinance. The group also wants to file a petition to hold a referendum on rent control in Montclair. All five petitioners are members of the Montclair Property Owners Association, a group of landlords who are fighting the ordinance and ultimately argued that gathering signatures during a pandemic is not possible.
The ordinance, which limits annual increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors, will take effect 20 days after its approval, on April 27.
The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition the law for a referendum.
“These are activities that simply cannot be carried out during the social distancing emergency measures now in place. The lawsuit will vindicate the substantive right of protest that Montclair residents have and provide a reasonable opportunity for the residents to exercise these rights when the public emergency has ended,” said Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler LLC, attorney for the committee.
The complaint seeks to protect landlords’ right to engage in referendum activity and to enjoin the township from implementing the law until the state of emergency has eased so that petition signatures can be collected for referendum, he said.
The MPOA was formed in response to the ordinance’s introduction in March and includes 47 multi-family property owners representing 1,175 properties, said Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association. The group had posted a petition to stop the ordinance, contending that they did not have enough time to have input and that approving the law during a pandemic was unconstitutional. As of today, the petition had 290 signatures.
The association asked the council to postpone the April 7 vote on the ordinance, which had been introduced at the March 10 conference council meeting, and offered instead for apartment owners in Montclair to impose a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days.
The group had sent suggested edits of the ordinance to council, but did not receive feedback, said Simoncini.
“Our shock over the lack of transparency by not soliciting input from homeowners and property owners is only exceeded by our dismay over adopting this election-driven ordinance during a global pandemic,” said Gormally. “This lawsuit has been filed to protect the peoples’ right to protest government action through the referendum process. Government should not adopt legislation knowing that the peoples’ rights to engage in a referendum have been functionally eliminated due to the state of emergency.”
The court materials were sent in advance to the municipality in an effort to persuade the council to stay the ordinance voluntarily.
“While the plaintiffs are reluctant to engage in litigation during a state of emergency, they must promptly act to vindicate the public interest and its statutory power to petition the government to redress governmental action through referendum,” Gormally said.
He said town officials have not responded.
Gormally said that although the courts are technically closed, a judge can issue an emergency injunction ordering the stay and set a trial date in the future.
“When we learned of the ordinance, we proposed not increasing rents as a good-faith gesture until the council could open a genuine dialogue about rent control in Montclair from which all property owners, including homeowners, were excluded,” said Simoncini. “Instead of entertaining the offer, the council enacted a patently unenforceable and inequitable ordinance without even considering a single amendment, revealing their bias against property owners of all types.”
Simoncini said after discussions with several landlords, “each had indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90-days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the entire membership is determined to fight back on this until property owners are treated equally under the law.”
During the meeting in which they passed the ordinance, council members said that due to the economic difficulties residents are experiencing with COVID-19, they felt renters needed the ordinance now rather than later.
“Renters can’t wait. Now is the time,” said Councilman Sean Spiller, who had introduced the ordinance that was voted on.
Tenant organization members said today that the landlords had almost a year to get involved in the process and chose not to.
“We expect the township to vigorously defend the implementation of our ordinance. The Tenants Organization of Montclair Advocacy Group will not back down from doing what is right - especially during these unprecedented times. They - the uncaring and unconscionable -can’t take away what tenants vitally need,” said the organization’s president, AhavaFelicidad.
An email sent from Montclair Local to Spiller concerning the suit was not answered.
SaveMontclair also issued a statement today that they were against the ordinance contending rent control would reduce municipal tax revenue as rental revenues decrease in buildings.
Forty-two percent of Montclair’s housing stock is rental units, according to the 2016 Census, with 13.2 percent in two-unit buildings and 10.2 percent in three-to-four units. The ordinance exempts two- and three-family residences.
Gov. Phil Murphy today announced that the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency voted to suspend rent increases at all eligible properties within the agency’s portfolio, which includes units at Union Gardens, the Matthew Carter Apartments, the Montclair Inn and 22 Fulton St.