BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
As the pandemic moves into August and housing advocates say 40 percent of New Jerseyans will not make rent this month, the debate of rent stabilization persists here in Montclair where 44 percent of its housing stock is renter-occupied.
The group attempting to put rent control on the November ballot has gathered enough petition signatures to do so, but still wants access to the township email list to gather more to ensure that result.
“Text-messaging and emails don’t replace a clipboard and a knock on the door. It’s a very difficult way to gather signatures,” said Ron Simoncini of the Montclair Property Owners Association.
The association is challenging Montclair’s rent control ordinance, passed in a teleconferenced council meeting on April 7, contending that “the community was shut out of dialogue” on the ordinance.
A court complaint filed by members of the association after the ordinance’s passage seeks to protect landlords’ right to engage in referendum activity and to enjoin the township from implementing the law until the state of emergency has eased so that petition signatures can be collected for a referendum, Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler LLC, attorney for the group, said in May.
The group was back in court on Thursday, July 23, requesting that the judge order the town to turn over its email/contact list so it could solicit more signatures.
Since the group can’t go door-to-door during the pandemic, it reached out to about 5,000 residents it had access to through emails and texts. Petitioners need to obtain about 1,020 signatures, or 10 percent of the voter turnout in the last municipal election, to put the issue of rent control on the ballot. In order to be accepted, the signatures must be from registered voters only.
Because all signatures must be verified by the township clerk, petitioners usually submit more than the required number in case some will be rejected. With the difficulty of gathering signatures of registered voters due to COVID-19, the group wants even more signatures than would normally be submitted.
The Tenants Organization of Montclair had lobbied for rent stabilization for over a year, contending new landlords were taking over their buildings and raising rents, in some cases by as much as 35 percent.
The ordinance, which limits annual increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors, was to take effect 20 days after its approval on April 27. The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum.
After the council passed the ordinance, a group of petitioners filed for an injunction to put a stay on the ordinance, contending that going door-to-door to gather signatures during the pandemic would prove impossible. That injunction was approved and signed on April 17 by Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham and temporarily prohibits the town from enforcing the provisions of the rent-control ordinance.
On May 12, Beacham denied the township’s motion to vacate the order.
In May, with no rent stabilization law and in response to the pandemic, Montclair instituted a rent freeze, effective from May 1 to July 31. At the July 21 council meeting, the council introduced an amendment to extend the freeze until Dec. 31.
According to a study released in July by the Coalition of Housing Advocates in New Jersey, approximately 40 percent of all New Jersey renter households will not be able to pay their rent in August. Approximately 49 percent of all African American New Jersey renter households will not be able to pay their rent next month, the highest percentage in the state among all ethnicities.
The unpaid rent from these households over the past several months is estimated to be approximately $687 million and will continue to increase due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, the coalition’s study found. New Jersey could experience more than 300,000 eviction filings in the coming four months, an estimated 600-percent increase from pre-COVID-19 levels, the study said.
After the township denied the group access to its email list the group of petitioners, which includes Montclair Property Owners Association members Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, filed a motion on July 21 to gain access to the emails. The judge is expected to rule on the motion on Aug. 24.
Some residents and housing advocates have said that the group’s emails and texts have been misleading. The text reads, “Help get rent control on the ballot.” Clicking on the text takes you to the petition, which states the group’s opposition to the ordinance.
To get a referendum on the ballot, it must be received by the Essex County Board of Elections by Sept. 23.
Past rent stabilization referendums have proved unsuccessful 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.