BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
After a year of landlord-tenant hearings over rent increases as high as 35 percent in some cases, Montclair may soon get a rent control ordinance.
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.
Montclair has seen a boom in the development of multi-family housing in recent years, with nearly 600 new apartments built already, and 500 more to come in the next few years.
For about a year, members of the newly formed Tenants Organization of Montclair and renters have been speaking out at council meetings. At times more than a dozen residents, seniors, social workers, teachers, writers, firefighters and trade workers would line up to tell their stories of new landlords taking over their buildings and raising rents, adding new fees for pets and parking, while doing few, if any, upgrades to the apartments.
Many of the residents have lived in these buildings for a decade or more, but now feel 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, according to the stories being told by renters at council meetings.
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.
While homeowners have predictable housing costs, Montclair renters don’t, rent control advocate Toni Martin said.
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, 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.
More than 6,500 dwellings — about 44 percent of Montclair’s housing stock — are renter-occupied. Thirty percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent, according to the 2016 Census.
Times have changed, say the Tenants Organization. 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.
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.
And at a March 10 council conference meeting, the renters and members of the organization, this time with clergy in tow, got their wish, as the council introduced a rent control ordinance. Two ordinances were actually introduced, one by Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, a longtime advocate of rent control, and another by First Ward Councilman Sean Spiller; both are candidates in the May mayoral election. The council voted to introduce Spiller’s.
Where Baskerville’s limited landlords to a maximum annual rent increase of 3.5 percent, with 2 percent for seniors 65 years of age or older, Spiller’s limit was 4.25 percent, with 2.5 percent for seniors.
Spiller’s ordinance has an exemption for four-family homes and under, while Baskerville’s had exemption for two-family or below. According to the Census, 10.2 percent of Montclair’s housing stock is buildings with three-to-four units, while 13.2 percent are two-unit buildings.
“Enactment of a rent control law with the stipulations listed above would provide a financial benefit to thousands of Montclair residents,” said Housing Commission co-chair Deirde R. Malloy. “It would also give the municipal government an important new tool for ensuring building quality. In addition, the whole of Montclair will gain a measure of stability provided by improved affordability in its rental homes and greater security for tenants who will know their expenses with much more certainty.”
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.
The courts have generally ruled that a 10 percent rent increase was unconscionable, but that number is not always the case now, said Mitch Kahn, a tenants’ advocate who has aided in the drafting of 100 rent-control ordinances throughout New Jersey, including Montclair’s. 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.
Sixteen Essex County towns have rent control in some form. Other neighboring towns with rent control limit landlords to rent increases ranging from 4 percent to 6 percent, with South Orange putting the limit at 3 percent. Where Irvington, South Orange, Verona and West Caldwell have exemptions for three units or below, Bloomfield and East Orange exempt five units or below.