By Jaimie Julia Winters
In a town where buying a home is becoming unrealistic for many, renting has been a more affordable option for residents wanting to call Montclair home. The rental stock is high, making up 42 percent of the housing market here.
The average Montclair home is assessed at $628,200, with most selling above their assessed value. Taxes on that home are $19,500. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment here, according to 2016 U.S. Census data, is $1,422.
But with no rent-control ordinance in place, and new owners taking over buildings, long-term renters are seeing their rents rise as much as 30 percent when their leases expire. Many of the new landlords are also tacking on new fees for parking, as high as $100 a month, and a $65 monthly pet fee.
The seniors, social workers, teachers, writers and trade workers who have lived in these buildings for a decade or more feel they are being forced out as gentrification spreads through Montclair’s four wards. After receiving rent increase notifications with added fees from new landlords, many residents have moved out, leaving apartments empty. The landlord then makes upgrades — renovated kitchens with granite countertops, dishwashers, new bathrooms, open floor plans and refurbished or new hardwood floors. With the upgrades, the landlord can get $2,200, compared to $1,200 they were previously getting for a one-bedroom.
Where the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee used to hear one or two tenant complaints filed a month, they are now hearing up to six, said William Scott, chairman of the local NAACP’s Housing Committee who monitors tenant-landlord relations and has been advocating for rent stabilization in Montclair.
Residents with rent disputes should go to the township website, montclairnjusa.org, to download a form. The committee holds office hours on the first floor of the Municipal Building, 205 Claremont Ave., each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on the first Thursday of every month from 6 to 8 p.m.
Roughly 35 tenants attended one of these Thursday night hearings Oct. 4. Most were long-term tenants from Montclair Gardens at 39-41 N. Fullerton Ave. where the new owner since May, Oak Tree Property Management, has sent out notices of increases ranging from 10 to 18 percent with tacked-on pet and parking fees.
But others included a school counselor, who has rented for 29 years at 180 Orange Road, and just received notice of a 20 percent increase by new owners Blue Lighthouse, and a senior in a three-family home for 14 years, who received a 29 percent increase notice with her renewal notice with the new owners.
The Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee is composed of tenants, landlords and homeowners. The committee advises on housing issues and conditions, directly assists in the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes, and recommends tenant selection guidelines for new affordable housing units.
“We received notices of a large rent increase and planned changes to the building via a note slipped under our doors,” said Toni Martin, a Montclair Gardens resident and freelance journalist. “It was signed ‘The Management.’ We were supplied with a phone number for a property manager, Leah Mitchell. Many of us made many calls to her office, many of which received no response, most of which prompted uninformative responses, and none of which resulted in any possibility of negotiations about what was being imposed.”
The tenants say they then received new leases via email and with parking and pet charges tacked on.
Some tenants said it was their second rental rate hike within a year.
Building owner Yosef Goldberg, who attended the hearing, said that the former owner left leases that were incomplete and with limited information.
“We saw tremendous gaps of what tenants paid and the market rates,” Goldberg said.
The tenants also complained about ongoing construction of an outdoor space with new grills, a bocce ball court and a workout gym they contend has blocked entrances.
Goldberg said the company is seeking to update the building with what he said potential renters want. He said long-needed improvements will also be made to items such as upgrading the lobbies, fixing malfunctioning elevators and a new office for the property manager.
“You bought the building. You shouldn’t raise our rents to pay for these items,” said Evy Leonard. “Instead of trying to open a positive dialog with the tenants, the new owners greeted us with a ‘We’re here, will do what we feel is best for our asset, and if you want to continue living here, you will do so on our terms.’ Apparently, no upgrades are planned to any of our apartments, and we have experienced great difficulty in getting the ear of management to make needed repairs or upgrades. Meanwhile, apartments that turnover are being refurbished with new kitchens and bathroom fixtures, and are being advertised at rents more than 50 percent higher than current rents.”
Whereas current rents at Montclair Gardens are $1,100 to $1,350, the refurbished units are $1,700 to $2,500 according to listings on realtor pages.
Discussions on the issue of rent control in Montclair have been ongoing for about 30 years, with several attempts to implement it failing, Scott said. In 1979, a rent control plan was voted down by Montclair residents, 62 percent to 38. A housing survey conducted about 30 years ago, after the 1981 construction of the Bay Street Station and increased gentrification in that area of town, suggested that rent stabilization be investigated. A special referendum failed again in 1986. In 2004, a recommendation was pulled from the 2004 Montclair Affordable Housing Strategy Plan, said Scott. Without rent control, new owners can raise not only current rents, but can more than double rents for newly renovated apartments making them unaffordable for middle and low income residents.
“If people move, the landlords upgrade the apartments and get higher rents. That’s what they want,” said Jose Ortiz of the Essex-Newark Legal Service, who attended the hearing at the request of the committee.
Tenants rights are heard on a case-by-case basis according to the Tenants Rights Handbook. Landlords have the right to raise rents, Ortiz said, but with no rent control in place, landlords can raise rents subjectively. Tenants can contest the hikes as “unconscionable.” Judges, he said, usually rule that more than a 10 percent increase, including added fees, qualifies as “unconscionable.”
“The added fees have to be related to management of the building, otherwise it’s just another way to increase rent,” Ortiz said. “I find it hard to rationale to all of the sudden charge a monthly cat fee for a tenant who has had a cat for years. Where are those fees going?”
The fair-market rent for a two-bedroom in Essex County is $1,465, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The household would have to have an combined income of $58,000 in order to make the housing affordable. In Montclair, 39 percent of renters pay 30 percent or more of their income toward rent, according to the Census.
At the Landlord/Tenant committee meeting, Angela DaCosta contested the $500 increase at her three-bedroom apartment on North Willow Street. While most at Montclair Gardens had not signed the new leases, DaCosta said she felt her “back was against the wall” and signed the new lease in August, which raised her rent to $2,200 per month. She cited her unwillingness to uproot her husband, who had a stroke and sees doctors in the area. Her downstairs neighbor received an $800 increase.
The committee ruled the rent increase was “unconscionable” and told the landlord and tenant to mediate a lower increase.
Brenda Aguiar has lived at 180 Orange Road for 29 years. After new owners bought her building in March 2018, she received notice in August of a $250 increase in rent (a 20 percent bump) plus a $100-per-month garage fee. She has scheduled a hearing for the next committee meeting.
Scott said many tenants find a way to make the new rent increase work for a year or two, but then are priced out of Montclair.
With Montclair going through a development boom with new apartments renting for between $2,000 and $3,500 a month, and landlords wanting to keep up with the new market, Scott believes it is time to revisit the idea of rent control.
Mayor Robert Jackson, who said he had never attended a Landlord/Tenant hearing before because the tenants and the landlords were always able to reach an agreement, lambasted Goldberg.
“I don’t want to threaten, but it kind of is [a threat]. We have tools in our tool chest,” he said. “You are new to town. Some of these things [fees] are unusual, draconian for Montclair. These charges are beyond unreasonable. I suggest you sit down with these good people.”
Martin said on Monday that Oak Tree had lowered the rent increases to an overall 6 percent and dropped the pet fee for current tenants. Although the tenants have won their battle for now, Martin believes the only way to keep rents affordable for her and her neighbors is through rent stabilization such as in Bloomfield and South Orange, where rent can’t be raised more than 4 percent annually.