Rent ordinance opponents seek residents’ emails to gather referendum signatures
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s rent-control ordinance is in limbo, said Township Attorney Ira Karasick. However, the township’s 90-day rent-increase freeze, retroactive to May 1, remains in effect until Aug. 1, or until the state of emergency is lifted by Gov. Phil Murphy.
On April 17, a Superior Court judge granted a temporary stay blocking the rent-control ordinance, which limits rent increases to 4 percent or less, at the request of a committee of petitioners who want to challenge the ordinance through the referendum process, which puts the question to voters to decide.
The ordinance was passed in a teleconferenced council meeting on April 7, culminating a year-long lobbying effort by the Tenants Organization of Montclair. Members of the group had spoken out at council meetings against new landlords taking over their buildings and, the group says, raising rents, in some cases by as much as 35 percent.
“The temporary injunction is in place and the rent ordinance has not taken effect yet,” Karasick told members of the public at a recent council meeting.
A motion by the township to dissolve the temporary stay was denied on May 12. And a group has launched a petition to have rent control placed on the ballot in this November’s general election.
In June, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that allows for petition signatures to be gathered online, which would apply to any pending petition for all remaining elections in 2020 and for any other election taking place thereafter for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
However, the petitioners, in a brief to the court, claim they are being denied access by the township to residents’ emails.
“The request that the township produce a list of any email addresses used to contact Montclair and its departments is reasonable and should be ordered by this court. We also requested a copy of email contacts that Montclair sends its newsletter to and access to the township’s website so that a link to the petition could be posted there. This request was denied as well,” the brief to the court reads.
The petitioners have offered to pay for any cost incurred by the township for the retrieval of the emails and the posting of the link on the site.
“We have solicited from various bodies email and cellphone information so that we can approach the electorate digitally, but these processes are frustrated by the township’s unwillingness to share data,” the brief to the court reads.
The petitioners, who include Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, are all members of the Montclair Property Owners Association and filed a five-count complaint in Superior Court on April 16 to request the injunction.
“Worst case scenario, it goes to referendum,” said Karasick.
But the group can’t submit any signatures on the referendum petition until the injunction is lifted.
The pandemic prompted New Jersey to suspend evictions throughout the state. The eviction moratorium means that no tenant may be removed from his or her home as a result of an eviction proceeding, with rare exceptions for cases such as when a tenant is violent or endangering other tenants.
The moratorium does not halt court proceedings; instead, it prevents lockouts and removals. The New Jersey Supreme Court, which controls court proceedings related to eviction, has suspended all eviction proceedings for now; once courts reopen, landlords will still be able to take tenants to court.
The moratorium will last until two months after Murphy declares an end to the COVID-19 health crisis, unless he issues another executive order to end the moratorium sooner. Local officials will then resume removing tenants who are subject to final court orders of eviction.
Renters had until Friday, July 10, to apply for the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which will provide temporary rental assistance to qualified low- and moderate-income households that have had a substantial reduction in income or whose members became unemployed due to the pandemic.
Applicants may be eligible for a maximum of six months of emergency rental assistance. The assistance will be capped at DCA’s fair market rent standard or the total of the rent, whichever is lower. All participants will be reviewed at the three-month interval to see if they are still in need of assistance.