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Gov. Phil Murphy recognizes Montclair landlord David Placek for giving his tenants a break on rent.
PHOTO COURTESY CHRIS PEDOTA

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Montclair landlord David Placek got a shoutout from Gov. Phil Murphy on Saturday for giving his tenants a “rent holiday” during the economic downturn COVID-19 has brought. Placek is not collecting rent from his dozen or so renters through June. 

“Now certainly not every landlord is in a position to do the same. We get that. But David exemplifies the spirit we need to see right now, of people stepping up to make sure others can come out of this emergency stronger, and so we all come out of this stronger. Hats off, David,” Murphy said at his briefing on Saturday, April 11.

While states such as California, New York, and New Jersey have enacted eviction freezes and mortgage relief in the wake of massive layoffs due to the coronavirus, rent relief has been a different story. Due to the high number of private rental agreements between landlords and tenants, Murphy said, issuing a statewide rent freeze would be complicated.

“We have not had a rental freeze, just because there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands if not millions, of contracts between landlords and renters. Actually, at least in New Jersey, unless I’m wrong, putting a freeze in place is I believe impractical [and] is a legal matter,” he said during Saturday’s briefing. “We have said you can’t be thrown out of your house or evicted if it’s foreclosed.”

Last Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the Rent Guidelines Board to freeze rents for all regulated apartments and for the state to allow New Yorkers to pay rent with their security deposit. The board rejected the request, he said. 

The group representing the landlords of rent-controlled apartments throughout New York told WABC-TV last week that a rent freeze would only “expedite the deterioration of the city’s aging housing stock, and will do nothing to aid tenants that are already struggling to pay the rent in the midst of this crisis.”

In Montclair, 42 percent of the residents are housed in rental units. 

William Scott, a Montclair landlord and housing advocate, said the state will not get involved and suggested landlords work with their tenants through the next few months.

“Most of my tenants paid in April. But I have one tenant who could not pay their rent. I am working with them. It’s going to be a month-to-month situation,” Scott said. 

Tenants who paid in April may not be able to pay in May if they are laid off, he said.

Murphy said, “You can’t be foreclosed on. If the landlord’s got a mortgage, and they’ve got a holiday from their mortgage bank, we expect them to pass that holiday on to people who are renting from them.” 

Mortgage relief only helps landlords who have a mortgage, which will eventually have to be paid under conditions set by the lender. Many landlords do not have mortgages and live off the rental income, he said.

Furthermore, on May 1, property taxes are due. Murphy has said that governments are “bleeding money” and now wouldn’t be the time to place a freeze on taxes. 

Murphy reminded renters that they can file a complaint with the state.  

“Renters, they should raise their hand if they’re getting screwed by a landlord, to use a diplomatic verb, and it’s out-of-line behavior. This is no time to be throwing your weight around as a landlord or as anybody else, for that matter,” Murphy said. 

Deirdre Malloy, chairperson of Montclair’s  Landlord Tenant Housing Committee, said the committee is bracing for an influx of renter and landlord inquiries. But she said that currently there are no issues regarding inability to pay rent, nor complaints from renters against landlords not knowing about the state moratorium on evictions. 

“But that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there,” Malloy said. “It should also be noted that the complaint review and mediation process is accessible for use by both renters and landlords.” The economic downturn comes at an interesting time for both landlords and tenants, Scott said. Just last week, after three failed attempts over the past four decades to get rent control, Montclair’s township council passed an ordinance regulating annual rent increases to no more than 4.25 percent, with senior rent increases capped at 2.5 percent.  The rent caps do not go into effect until 20 days after the April 7 passage of the law. 

“Interesting time if their lease is up in April,” Scott said.

Scott thinks the law is on the tenant’s side if a landlord attempts to slip through a rent increase higher than what the new law allows. 

“Due to Governor Murphy’s 90-day moratorium on evictions, the tenant can’t be evicted for any reason,” he said. 

A newly formed group, the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA), petitioned to stop the ordinance, contending that they did not have enough time to have input and that approving the law during a pandemic was unconstitutional. 

The association asked the council to postpone the vote, offering instead a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days by the apartment owners in Montclair. That could very well still happen.

“From recent discussion with several owners, each is expected to not increase rents for the next 90 days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis,” Ron Simoncini of MPOA said this week.

On Monday, a bill setting aside $100 million in rent aid for New Jersey tenants struggling to pay the rent due to a job loss related to COVID-19 passed the Senate. Renters would apply through the state’s New Jersey Homeless Prevention Program. The state would pay the landlord directly.