BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Pointing to the COVID-19 crisis and the economic instability it has wrought, Montclair’s mayor and council are moving to put a temporary moratorium on rent increases.
The council plans to pass the moratorium, which will be retroactive to May 1 and remain in effect until Aug. 1, at its next council meeting on May 19.
On April 21, the NAACP and Montclair clergy sent a request to township officials requesting a Rental Freeze for 90 days or until the state of emergency is lifted by Governor Murphy.
Although the moratorium was listed as a discussion item only on the May 5 agenda and council members had not received a copy of the ordinance, the governing body voted to introduce it on that date.
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Township Attorney Ira Karasick advised council members that they had the power to vote on the ordinance in an emergency capacity. He pointed to Hoboken’s passage of a similar ordinance on April 15.
“In light of the ongoing financial hardships, the severe disruption to the economy at all levels, and in the spirit of the moratorium on the execution of warrants of eviction, the township has determined that the immediate stability of rents is necessary in the public interest and is best served by placing an immediate, temporary moratorium on all rent increases,” the ordinance reads.
The ordinance prevents any increase in rent for all units with the exception of owner-occupied two-families; rental units in properties exempt from local rent regulation by state or federal law; rental units in which the rent is determined as a function of household income, and rental units in hotels.
State law created in 2008 states that local rent-control laws cannot apply to multiple-unit dwellings constructed after the effective date of that law, for 30 years following completion of construction.
The moratorium also bans landlords from tacking on additional charges for things such as parking, pets, security, and storage.
Gov. Phil Murphy banned all evictions as of March 19 until the state of emergency is lifted.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that a group of property owners sued the township after council members passed a rent-leveling ordinance via a teleconference meeting on April 7.
The Montclair Property Owners Association, a group of landlords, is fighting the ordinance and seeking to force a referendum on rent control. The MPOA argued that gathering signatures for a referendum petition during a pandemic is not possible, that the introduction of the ordinance on first reading on March 10 was not properly advertised, and that its final passage during a teleconferenced council meeting did not allow residents due process.
An Essex County Superior Court judge granted a temporary stay blocking the implementation of Montclair’s ordinance. The order, signed by Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham on Friday, April 17, prohibits the town from enforcing the provisions of the ordinance temporarily.
Both parties were back in court on Tuesday, May 12. The judge’s decision on the stay was still pending at press time.
Ron Simoncini, executive director of the MPOA, questioned the council’s motives for acting right before the May 12 election.
“They already passed a rent-control ordinance limiting the increase to 4½ percent, then they pass a total rent freeze?” Simoncini said.
Housing Commission co-chairperson William Scott said that even with a rent-control ordinance in effect that capped increases, Montclair tenants still needed a total rent freeze during unstable times.
“People don’t know what’s going to happen over the next few months and how we are going to come out of this,” Scott said. “This gives some stability.”
In a May 11 letter, MPOA attorney Charles X. Gormally alerted the court to the proposed ordinance, stating it would “put to rest” any concern that gouging could occur during the pandemic. “Accordingly, the only position asserted by the township in support of vacating the injunction and allowing rent control to become effective will be mooted when the township adopts the proposed rent freeze. Accordingly, the court should deny the application to vacate the injunction,” he wrote.
In addition, Simoncini said landlords have indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90 days based on sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. Gormally said he has advised the court that he is not aware of any landlord who has increased rent since the state of emergency.
But Scott noted that the MPOA only represents a small portion of landlords in Montclair and therefore they can’t speak for all landlords.
Simoncini said, “There are no evictions. No one is suffering any vulnerability in any way,” and added that the landlords have rights as well. “You can’t decide in Montclair, N.J., that you know more than James Madison and John Adams.”