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BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A newly formed group of property owners is fighting the creation of a rent control law introduced in March and expected to be voted through by Montclair’s township council on Tuesday, April 7.

The Montclair Property Owners Association has created a petition to stop an ordinance introduced on March 10 that would create rent control in the township. They contend that owners of nearly 800 apartments in Montclair “have committed to a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days,” and request the council postpone the vote. The petition has garnered 141 signatures since it launched last week.

For about a year, members of the Tenants Organization of Montclair have been speaking out at council meetings, with at times more than a dozen residents, seniors, social workers, teachers, writers, firefighters and trade workers lining up to tell stories of new landlords taking over their buildings and raising rents and adding new fees for pets and parking, while doing few, if any, upgrades to the apartments. 

At the March 10 council conference meeting, the council introduced a rent control ordinance limiting annual increases to 4.25 percent, and 2.5 percent for seniors. The ordinance exempts two-, three- and four-family residences.

Forty-two percent of Montclair’s housing stock is rental units, according to the Census, with 13.2 percent in two-unit buildings and 10.2 percent in three-to-four units.

At the March 24 council meeting, Ron Simoncini of the property owners association told the council that some members were not aware of the ordinance and they wanted a forum to add their input.

rent control
William Scott, chairman of the local NAACP’s Housing Committee who monitors tenant-landlord issues, advises tenants to read NJ’s Guide to Tenants Rights.
PHOTO BY JAIMIE WINTERS/STAFF

“Some of the members have had properties for over 60 years, most with very modest increase. There is a different story to tell about rent control,” he said. 

Councilman Sean Spiller, who introduced the ordinance, said that the discussion has been ongoing for over a year. He said he welcomed their comments through emails, but that the “process is proceeding.”

In a letter posted on the petition, Simoncini contended that the process had been “inequitable” since the council heard only from tenant advocates during its development. 

He also claimed the proposed ordinance “features unconstitutional conditions and is unenforceable.”

Association members also said that by voting through the ordinance during the coronavirus pandemic, it would violate the governor’s recent orders on business shutdowns and what local authorities can and can not do during the shutdown.

“Through its attorney Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler, MPOA also has submitted a legal opinion that not only would voting on the ordinance be in violation of Executive Orders 107 and 108, which are designed to prevent such abuses during the COVID-19 crisis,” he wrote. “As a practical matter it deprives the voters of their right to collect petition signatures that would force a Referendum should the council adopt the Ordinance.”

AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin, president and vice president of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, said the MPOA is a group that has only popped into local view in the past two weeks and is “not a functioning organization in the community.” 

Tenants Organization of Montclair is lobbying for rent control in Montclair. AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin are active members.
COURTESY TONI MARTIN

“Simoncini is a public relations representative for real estate companies, who runs seminars on why rent control is a ‘nightmare’ and acts as a hired gun for landlords whenever rent leveling efforts near success in New Jersey communities,” Martin said. 

She contends Simoncini was active most recently in attempting to quash Jersey City’s move to expand and update its existing rent control ordinance.

“The landlord association proposes a self-imposed ‘freeze’ on rent hikes during the COVID crisis? Really? Which feckless landlord would try to raise rents now even without the quid pro quo of rent control delay? For decades, Montclair housing advocates have worked to counter the way rapid development and market forces continuously threaten our racially and economically diverse community. Now, this property-owner group attempts to claim high ground in ‘freezing’ rent increases during a severe crisis? It is a shameless ploy, and we say: Sorry, landlords, not on our watch,”  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 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. 

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