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COURTESY OF TOOM The Tenants Organization of Montclair is helping those who have experienced rent increases during COVID-19. Shown are, from left, Betsy Tessler, President AhavaFelicidad and Louisa Hackett.

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

After some renters reported receiving increases when their leases expired, rent-control advocates are asking the town to enforce the rent-freeze ordinance approved in May.

Tenants Organization of Montclair officials told council members that some landlords are trying to bypass the freeze, which prohibits rent and fee increases during the pandemic.  

“There are landlords and property owners who, unfortunately, even during this time have been trying to increase the rent. We need the ordinance implemented and to stop this from happening to more residents,” said Tenants Organization President AhavaFelicidad.

The rent freeze does have some exemptions, including for rental units in properties that are owner-occupied with no more than one additional rental unit; units in properties exempt from local rent regulation by state or federal law (multiple dwellings constructed after 2008 for a period of time not to exceed the period of the initial mortgage loan obtained for the multiple dwelling, or for 30 years following completion of construction); and units in which the rent is determined as a function of household income.

The freeze was in effect until Aug. 30, but it recently was extended until Dec. 31. 

The ordinance states: “During the period the moratorium is in effect, no rent shall be increased as to any property covered by this ordinance, where rent is defined for purposes of this ordinance as any price for the use of a residential rental space, no matter how set forth, including amounts paid by the tenant for the use of any service in connection with a tenancy. Additionally, no other charge associated with the rental of a property covered by this ordinance, including but not limited to charges for parking, pets or the use of furniture, shall be increased during this time.” 

Housing Commission Co-Chair Deirdre Malloy said nearly two dozen renters have approached her since April with rent increases. All of those complaints were mediated with no rent increase, she said. 

Malloy said in most cases the landlords contended they were not aware of the rent freeze, as some of them live out of town, but others do reside in Montclair. 

That was the case for Miryam Alania, whose landlord at 63 Elm St. raised the rent on her $1,300 unit by $150 when the lease was up for renewal. Once she pointed to the rent-freeze ordinance, the landlord backed down. She said other tenants also have had increases reflected in their leases.  

The Landlord/Tenant Committee, where disputes between tenants and landlords are heard and on which Malloy also sits, also hears complaints about rent increases. The committee, which typically does not meet over the summer, is set to resume hearings, but will only do so if a complaint is filed. 

Malloy said she is expecting about a dozen other complaints this week, with most of them dealing with one property owner who is attempting to increase rents. She said that until complaints are filed, she couldn’t release the address. HOMECorp officials also said they had one client who they helped mediate a rent increase during the rent freeze.

Although the ordinance setting the moratorium does not set penalties for landlords who violate it, Toni Martin, vice president of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, asked the township attorney if summonses could be issued to the landlords in question. Currently, the Landlord/Tenant Committee can only mediate any rent dispute. Township Attorney Ira Karasick said any formal enforcement would have to be decided in Superior Court. All complaints brought to Karasick’s attention have been settled with landlord cooperation, he said. 

For tenants who receive a new lease that reflects a rent increase while the moratorium is in place, Malloy suggests they first point the landlord to Ordinance O-20-20. If the landlord insists it is within their right to raise the rent, the tenant can reach out to the Landlord/Tenant Committee. Karasick said he can also be reached for any potential violations.

In March, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order that states that tenants could not be removed from a residential property as the result of an eviction during the state of emergency. 

In April, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency voted to suspend rent increases at all eligible properties within the agency’s portfolio, which includes Montclair units at Union Gardens, the Matthew Carter Apartments, the Montclair Inn and 22 Fulton St.

There is also an executive order allowing renters to direct their landlords to use their security deposits to pay their rent, whether to make up for a shortfall or to pay it in full.

The COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program provides temporary rental assistance to low- and moderate-income households that have had a substantial reduction in income or whose members have become unemployed due to the pandemic. Applicants were eligible for up to six months of emergency rental assistance. Applications for the program closed out in July. 

Montclair officials are expected to discuss an amendment to the township renters assistance program that would increase assistance for those who qualify from funding the first month to funding the first three months’ rent. Funding would be provided through the township’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.