Rent control and a tale of two Montclairs (On the Other Hand)
Two cheers for rent control! It only took 30 years of trying and it’s not as strong as it should be, but at least we can hold our heads up and say we’re going to have a rent control law on the books (take that, Caldwell!).
In the end, the tenant representatives traded more coverage (buildings with two or three units, instead of the previously envisioned four or more) for no restrictions on rent increases for vacant apartments once every five years.
I say two cheers, because that last bit — no limit on vacancy increases -—means that landlords will be able to charge new tenants whatever the market will bear. No one really knows what effect this will have because no one knows what sort of tenant turnover rates we have. Still, it seems like a pretty big concession, one that is destined to make the town even less affordable.
Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I wasn’t sarcastic enough about landlords in my last column. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
See, I was sure that in this bastion of Democratic voters, with a Bernie Sanders supporter on every corner, there would have been overwhelming support for a basic principle of economic justice like rent control. But the Democrats on the Township Council and the tenants’ representatives weren’t so sure. They didn’t want to risk a referendum.
Maybe they knew something I didn’t. It’s easy to be liberal when money isn't involved. After all, supporting marriage equality (I’m for marriage equality!) doesn’t cost you anything unless you have to pay for a same-sex wedding. Rent control, on the other hand, involves property, and wallets are always where principles hit the road.
Progressive Montclairians are extremely active on national issues, yet curiously uninterested in what’s going on in our own backyard. It’s too bad that a mob of MAGA-hat-wearing truckers didn’t drive through Montclair protesting rent control. Then there would have been a massive public outcry in support of the rent control law, for sure.
Let me rephrase that.
IT’S A GREAT THING that a mob of MAGA-hat-wearing truckers didn’t drive through Montclair protesting rent control, even if that would have sparked a massive public outcry in support of the rent control law.
Why don’t local progressives get as worked up about local issues? It’s almost as if they don’t know that 6.6% of our residents live below the poverty level, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Or that the township is becoming whiter, now down to about 25% identified as Black only. Or that while there are about 7,000 students in the public schools (I’m for public schools!) there are more than 11,000 senior citizens in town, many struggling to stay in their homes.
You know those lawn signs you see everywhere in town, the ones that start, “We believe” and then go on to list a number of progressive issues (I have one of those lawn signs!)? Too bad “affordable housing in Montclair” or "senior services in Montclair” aren't on the list of things we believe in. Then maybe people would pay attention to what’s going on around here.
But there’s only so much a lawn sign can accomplish.
Montclair has both the very poor and the very rich — that’s called diversity. But it also means we have a wealthy power bloc right here in River City. Many of the real estate developers who fought rent control live here. Heck, a lot of them are Democrats, good liberals who give to liberal causes. This lends a certain chummy country club air to the way decisions are made. After all, we’re all pals here, aren’t we? What’s a few affordable housing units among friends?
It’s still possible to say there are two Montclairs (which is good, otherwise I’d have to think of a new title for this column), but that is quickly changing. When low-income housing is lost, like when they built the Bay Street station, it is never replaced. The set-asides of affordable units in new construction are never enforced. Measures to help senior citizens age in place (I’m a senior citizen!) are scant or nonexistent.
But there’s no need to worry about people being forced to leave Montclair. As the English economist Adam Smith put it, “Are there no prisons? No workhouses?”
Sorry, that was Ebenezer Scrooge, but you get the point. The prevailing attitude seems to be, if you can’t afford to live here, we wish you well, but get lost. Meanwhile, the good-hearted, active, progressive community is AWOL.
So, this is what I want you to do. Get a Sharpie and go out to your lawn sign. (You don’t have one? I’d hate to hear what your neighbors say about you.) Along the bottom write in large letters, “In Montclair!”
That ought to do it.
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.