by ERIN ROLL
Montclair has a renowned school system, an array of restaurants and shops, six train stations and a wealth of cultural attractions that make it the envy of many communities. But it’s hard to live here. Many can’t afford it.
That was the takeaway from a panel talk with Montclair town officials and community members, which took place Thursday night at the United Way building on South Fullerton Avenue. The panel talk was part of NJTV’s ongoing “In Your Neighborhood” visiting towns and cities around New Jersey. The May 24 talk centered around infrastructure and housing in Montclair.
The panelists included Mayor Robert Jackson; Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville; Peter Keating, the community board chair of the United Way of Northern New Jersey; Ann Lippel, the chair of the senior citizens’ advisory committee; Albert Pelham, of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation; and William Scott, chair of the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee.
The panel was hosted by NJTV and live streamed on its Website. The panel moderator was NJTV correspondent Briana Vannozzi.
In their opening remarks, Jackson and Baskerville pointed to recent improvements, including Montclair’s triple-A bond rating, the establishment of transit villages near the train stations and positive trends in property values. “I don’t mean to say that we’re a perfect community, because we’re not,” Jackson said, but he said that Montclair has many qualities that other towns want including a diverse population and a walkable downtown area.
Loss of middle class
Keating said that most towns tend to have a bell curve when it comes to the income of residents: largely middle-class, with smaller numbers of poorer families and wealthier families at either end. With Montclair, on the other hand, the income trends tends to be “saddle-shaped:” lots of very wealthy families and lots of poorer families, but a dwindling number of middle-class families.
Keating said there’s been an exodus of middle-class families moving out of Montclair, for towns such as Bloomfield, Verona and West Orange. The real-estate boom has also been a contributing factor, with families leaving New Jersey for states such as South Carolina.
“Now, this is amidst all the successes we’ve talked about,” he said, saying that Montclair was a very civic-minded town where people interested in government could get involved. “But there are some big structural factors we have to pay attention to keep the middle class from getting hollowed out.”
According to Zillow.com Montclair home values have risen 8.4 percent in the last year, with the median price of homes currently listed in Montclair at $599,900.
Montclair property owners pay the 10th-highest property taxes in the state, according to figures from the Department of Community Affairs. The average Montclair homeowner pays $19,065 annually in property taxes. The average household income is $126,360.
Keating said that many households in Montclair are considered ALICE households: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The designation refers to families who are above the poverty line, but still have trouble affording housing, food and other expenses. ALICE households include people who work in town as well. They repair cars, do landscaping, provide child care and teach Montclair’s students.
“It’s very hard for those folks to plan ahead, to have any kind of security,” Keating said.
Montclair recently amended its affordable housing ordinances to continue its commitment to 20 percent affordable housing requirements with every new development and to give a preference to residents who work or already live in Montclair.
Renters make up 42 percent of the town. The median rent in Montclair is $1,900, with the US average at $946. Thirty-nine percent of renters pay 30 percent or more of their income toward rent, according to the Census.
“We’re not doing anything to retain families. The bottom line is, without rent control, the poor population in this town, the under-served population, is hitting the road,” Pelham said. “The character of the town was changing, and the demographics with them. For every success in Montclair, there’s another story.”
Housing advocates have tried since the 1970s to implement some kind of rent control to no avail. This year it was even the topic of research for the high school’s Center for Social Justice students, who researched Montclair’s lack of rent stabilization and presented three options to the council last week. A survey launched in December on whether Montclair should implement rent control will remain open until the end of the year as the NAACP seeks more input from residents.
While Pelham and Scott advocate for rent control, Jackson objected to the idea, claiming that rent control in some neighboring towns may not work well in a diverse community such as Montclair. He also said that rent control was being seen as a panacea to Montclair’s affordable housing challenges.
Baskerville said that Montclair was now in a better position to provide affordable housing for Montclair residents beyond the requirements of COAH. Scott noted the affordable housing wait list is between 2,500 and 3,000.
“Yes, I think we could be doing more, and Mr. Pelham, please don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It is worrying that even in 2018, Montclair still had communities divided along color lines. But to say that we’re doing nothing is far from the truth.”
Lippel said that age diversity was just as much of a concern. She said that 90 percent of seniors want to stay in Montclair, but 75 percent of that number cannot afford to.
She said that Montclair has done much for its senior population, including transportation and taxi vouchers, adult school classes and civic engagement. What Montclair’s seniors need most is more affordable housing, she said, adding that a grocery store in the Fourth Ward wouldn’t hurt either.