BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
In 2018, with no rent control in Montclair and rents rising as much as 30% with new leases, more than 35 tenants attended a Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee meeting, hoping to have those new rents mediated.
Most were long-term tenants from Montclair Gardens on North Fullerton Avenue, where the new owner had sent out notices of increases ranging from 10% to 18%, with tacked-on pet and parking fees.
There was a school counselor who had rented for 29 years at 180 Orange Road, and who had just received notice of a 20% increase by new owners. A senior in a three-family home for 14 years received a 29% increase notice with her renewal notice, also by new owners.
At that meeting, committee members were able to mediate an overall 6% increase and get the pet fee dropped for tenants at Montclair Gardens. The other tenants reported they were able to negotiate lower increases due to the committee’s mediation.
But now mediation hearings have been halted by township officials, who want to revamp the committee’s role.
The pandemic has a lot to do with it. In-person hearings have been canceled since April 2020, and Montclair has put in place temporary rent-increase moratoriums that continue today. A state eviction moratorium also continues. And in April 2020, the township passed a rent-control ordinance that limits increases to 4.25% a year or 2.5% for seniors, as well as creates a rent-leveling board to make sure rent increases comply with the law.
But that ordinance has been held up in a court dispute with a landlords group seeking to force the issue of rent control to a referendum.
Housing officials say that they have continued to advise both tenants and landlords through confusion over the regulations in place — both because of the ongoing suit and the temporary rules during the pandemic. While some landlords have violated the temporary rent-hike freeze, some tenants have filed false claims about landlords concerning the freeze, the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee reported in January.
In a May 25 email obtained by Montclair Local, from Township Attorney Ira Karasick to Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee Chair Deirdre Malloy, he states: “As the township attorney, I have been particularly concerned that the [committee] creates expectations that are being seized upon more and more by tenants caught in the current health and housing crises – expectation of results that you are trying to manage but that the township has no power to provide.”
Since the 1990s, the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee, composed of tenants, landlords and homeowners, advised residents and officials on housing issues and conditions, and directly assisted in the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes, according to a description of the committee formerly on the township’s website.
Tenants with disputes could download a form to place a complaint and meet with committee members, who held office hours on the first floor of the municipal building on Tuesdays and hearings the first Thursday evening of every month to hear the complaints.
At the hearings, many of which were over high rent increases, committee members advised landlords and tenants alike on their rights based on New Jersey’s Tenants Rights Handbook, but had no authority to make actual rulings.
At a recent Township Council meeting, William Scott, co-chair of Montclair’s Housing Committee and chairman of the local NAACP’s Housing Committee, questioned Karasick on the change in the role of the committee, and why the hearings could no longer take place. Karasick suggested that he would answer any inquiries via phone. Karasick has not replied to an email from Montclair Local requesting information on the change to the committee’s role.
In the May 25 email, the township attorney directs the committee not to conduct “mediations, ‘hearings,’ or other interventions” in landlord-tenant disputes.
“In my opinion, the best thing we can do for tenants and landlord-tenant relations in the township at this time is to resolve the unsettled rent-control situation and to direct tenants to the appropriate state, county and private offices and organizations that can help them,” Karasick wrote.
“Once a rent-leveling board is in place, we can consider what, if any, additional dispute resolution methods we might establish. Consequently, I have strongly recommended the present activities of the [committee] be reduced in scope while we internally regroup and develop clearer and more realistic and efficacious guidelines for the township’s role and involvement in landlord-tenant relations.
“As we work through these landlord-tenant issues, we hope to have the assistance and support of you and others who have been active with the [committee].”
Malloy said due to the pandemic, retirements and other factors, the committee is now much smaller and in a process of reconstitution.
“I agree 100% [looking at the committee’s role] is quite necessary and very important for such a time as this. The committee awaits direction from the legal department and the governing body,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the courts are “bursting at the doors” with pending eviction cases, and many landlords are still not adhering to the rent-increase freeze or to executive orders that could soon expire.
For now, Malloy suggests landlords or tenants with rent questions call Karasick.
In April, Montclair received permission to appeal a judge’s ruling that would have sent Montclair’s rent-control ordinance to the ballot for voters to decide, after the Montclair Property Owners Association petitioned to force a referendum on the matter.
The township clerk had rejected a number of electronically gathered signatures for the petition, setting off the months-long legal dispute. Montclair had until June 1 to submit its brief to the appellate court. The landlord group’s brief must be submitted by June 21, and any reply brief must be handed to the court by July 1, according to township officials. Karasick has not returned an email asking if the township has filed its brief.