BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
You may have met them marching in the July 4 parade or while they handed out cards to commuters at the train stations. Their message: “We want you to stay.”
And last week, members of the Tenants Organization of Montclair came in droves to address the mayor and council, the people who could bring about change for the thousands of Montclair residents who rent, but who are being forced out by rent increases of up to 30 percent.
The newly formed organization is fighting for rent stabilization in a town that has none, but is seeing its renters being driven out by rent increases by new landlords. Without a rent stabilization mechanism in place that would ease rent increases, they say, landlords are using the current market rate as their benchmark for increases when leases are up for current tenants.
Buying a home in Montclair is becoming unrealistic for many. While the median home value in New Jersey is $329,000, the average Montclair home is assessed at $628,200, with taxes at $19,500. Renting has been a more affordable option for residents wanting to call Montclair home. The rental stock is high, making up 49 percent of the housing market here.
In 2016, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Montclair was $1,422, according to U.S. Census data. Now the market rate for a one-bedroom has risen as high as $2,230, far above the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair-market rent in Essex County, which is $1,465.
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 move on, 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 — that allow them to charge higher rents.
It’s the long-term renters who have not seen upgrades in their own apartments that are funding these renovations with their increase in rents and new fees, they contend.
Toni Martin, who has rented for 10 years, said that renters should be on equal footing to homeowners.
“Landlords don’t see us as full-fledged citizens. It’s like we don’t have rights,” she said.
While homeowners have predictable housing costs, Montclair renters don’t, she said.
In 2016, 39 percent or more of Montclair renters paid 30 percent or more of their income toward rent, according to the Census.
Unsuccessful movements to stabilize rents have a long history in Montclair.
In 1979, a rent control plan was voted down by residents, 62 percent to 38. A housing survey conducted about 30 years ago, after the Bay Street Station was built in 1981 and the area was becoming gentrified, suggested that rent stabilization be investigated. A special referendum failed again in 1986. In 2004, a recommendation for rent stabilization was pulled from the Montclair Affordable Housing Strategy Plan.
But times have changed, say the Tenants Organization. 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.
“Gentrification crept up on us, but now there’s a sense of urgency,” said Brenda Aguire, who saw a rent increase of 25 percent when new landlords took over her building. “It’s getting to be a point where it’s a privilege to live in this town.”
Jalaine Broughton has lived for years in what she describes as a “shabby” one-bedroom apartment on Orange Road. She said she didn’t mind the “shabbiness” because the apartment was affordable, she made it a home, and she was close to shops and restaurants and arts outlets she loves, but can no longer afford to frequent after her landlord raised the rent by 25 percent.
Mitch Kahn, a tenants’ advocate who has aided in the drafting of 100 rent-control ordinances, including in neighboring towns like South Orange, Maplewood, Caldwell, Bloomfield and Verona, told the council that Montclair’s diversity is already changing. He pointed to the 2000 Census which had the African American population at 32 percent. Today, he said, the population has dropped to 23 percent.
He argued that rent control is not a rent freeze. It’s designed to help existing tenants stay, and to help landlords bring in a predictable return, he said.
“You are not confiscating money from the landlord. It’s going to limit rent gouging and make sure that the landlord gets a just and reasonable returnable rate,” Kahn said.
Councilman-at-large Bob Russo agreed.
“Rent control works,” he said. “Landlords have predictability. Renters have it too. Everyone knows what to expect.”
For years, tenants with landlord disputes, including large rent increases, were able to have their cases heard before the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee, composed of tenants, landlords and homeowners. The committee advises on housing issues and conditions, and directly assists in the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes.
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, co-chair of the township Housing Commission.
Last October, a Landlord/Tenant Committee meeting was attended by over 35 tenants fighting rent increases ranging from 10 to 25 percent. Most were long-term tenants from the Montclair Gardens apartments, 39-41 North Fullerton Ave. where the new owner, Oak Tree Property Management, had sent out notices of increases ranging from 10 to 18 percent with tacked-on pet and parking fees.
Others included a resident of 29 years at 180 Orange Road, who received notice of a 20 percent increase by new owners Blue Lighthouse; a senior in a three-family home for 14 years who received a 29 percent increase notice with her renewal notice; and a resident who contested the $500 increase at her three-bedroom apartment on North Willow Street.
All said they received the large rent increases after new landlords took over.
Mayor Robert Jackson, who attended the meeting spoke out on behalf of the tenants.
“You are new to town,” he said to a new landlord in attendance.“Some of these things [fees] are unusual, draconian for Montclair. These charges are beyond unreasonable.”
The landlord later lowered some rent increases. But more tenants living at the Montclair Gardens apartments have since filed complaints and are expected to be heard on Nov. 7 at the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee hearing.
Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller said that, where in the past, town officials were able to intervene with tenants and landlords to reach a compromise, that may not be the case anymore.
“We have had limited success in the past. Now for every one we have been able to intervene, there are 10 that fall through,” he said.
Kahn said that courts have generally ruled that a 10 percent rent increase was unconscionable, but that number is not always the case now. Kahn said there are currently 15 Montclair rent cases being fought in Essex County court. Without rent control, Montclair is relying on judges to decide what is a reasonable rent increase, he said.
Scott, who has been fighting for rent control for a decade, is a landlord himself.
“I’ve got skin in the game,” he said. “But the gentrification, the market rates are out of control.”
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville said that gentrification is forcing residents out, not just in the Fourth Ward, but throughout Montclair.
“The increasing outcry from residents is pointing to a factor of rent increasing faster than their paychecks. New landlords are purchasing buildings and raising the rent with no regard for residents who are in the same apartments for years and who get unconscionable amounts in rent increases,” she said.
But some argue rent increases reflect well on the town.
Dr. Edmond Berisha, an assistant professor of economics at Montclair State University, said rent increases mean demand for housing is high, driving up the price. One way to lower rent is to increase the supply of housing and create incentives to build, he suggests.
Montclair however, has seen a boom in the development of multi-family housing in recent years, with nearly 600 new apartments built and 500 more to come in the next few years.
Ahava Felicidad, the head of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, said they will continue their fight.
“We are going to save homes, we are going to eradicate fears around living stability, we are going to help, the young, the old, the inbetween and beyond. We want you to stay.”
Editor’s note: Toni Martin, who is quoted in this story, is a freelance contributor for Montclair Local.