MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council’s December 1 conference meeting was permeated by more comments about rent control from the public.  Township Attorney Ira Karasick had nothing to report on the progress of the litigation pushing for a referendum on the rent-control ordinance, and Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo offered strong rebuttals to callers representing the interests of the landlords.

Ahava Felicidad of the Tenants Organization of Montclair called in to defend the ordinance, saying it was a modest effort at bringing some sort of rent stability to Montclair.  She proposed that the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) let it go into effect for one to two years and, should there be any problems, the MPOA could work with the council and tenants to amend it.  She wholeheartedly supported an extension of the rent freeze, which the council had on its agenda that night for a first-reading ordinance.  Another rent-control activist, Toni Martin, called in to say that she understood that the MPOA, which represents only a few of the landlords, sent a letter to the court saying that it would suspend legal action to see if negotiations are possible.  Martin said that the MPOA’s move has only stiffened the resolve of tenants’ groups in Montclair to keep fighting for the rent-control ordinance.  Other callers suggested that Montclair should try to do something about evictions in the absence of aid to renters from the federal government and also advocated anew the idea to divert money from the police to homeless shelters. 

William Scott of the Montclair Housing Organization called in to ask about the progress of the litigation.  When Karasick said that there was nothing to report apart from a hearing that was postponed, Scott asked if the judge can intervene in the curing process for the petitions submitted for the referendum.  Karasick replied that the judge moved in the case to suspend the rule restricting the time for petition curing to ten days, allowing it to go on longer.

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“As far as we’re concerned,” Karasick said, “the judge’s action is not lawful, but unfortunately, the only people who can say that are an appellate court.”  He said the township would fight the judge’s actions going forward.

Two callers phoned in to make the case for Montclair landlords.  Matt Horrigan of the MPOA called to say that the council did not try to listen to the concerns of the property owners before it passed the rent-control ordinance under then-Mayor Robert Jackson at its April 7 meeting, insisting that there was no dialogue on the issue and adding that a referendum would encourage such a discussion.  Councilor Russo replied that there has always been a place for landlords to engage in an open discussion.  He defended the tenants’ activists, saying they represented in good faith the 42 percent of Montclair residents who rent in defending them against astronomical rent increases and insisting that the regulations in the rent-control ordinance are not onerous to landlords.  But when Charles Gormally, a lawyer from the Roseland firm Brach Eichler, which represents the landlords, called in, Councilor Russo became angry. Gormally said that the property owners were denied the opportunity to participate in an online interface with the council at the time that New Jersey was issuing a state of emergency as the pandemic was bearing down on the state.   Furthermore, Gormally said, the council did not reach out to the landlords to get their side of the issue.

“When a governing body is going to adopt the only price control that it has in a municipality, and that’s the control of rents, it’s incumbent upon those that took their official oath of office to involve both parts of the discussion,” Gormally said, adding that the concerns of both sides had to be seriously addressed.  “This council utterly failed in doing that.”  Gormally also said that a moratorium on rent control has been passed as an excuse for failing to enact the rent-control ordinance, saying it was not necessary because no landlord would raise rates in a pandemic.

Councilor Russo called Gormally’s charge regarding the process “a false thing,” and he said that the council was doing this to protect tenants.  He also said that the resented the charge that the council had done the wrong thing, especially as it had come from a lawyer from Brach Eichler. The late Bill Brach of Brach Eichler had been one of Councilor Russo’s supporters early in his political career, and Brach had advocated for tenants’ rights.  Resident Frank Rubacky called in to say the Councilor Russo was being disingenuous, saying that the process had been ignored in passing the rent-control ordinance and that the township should have followed the proper procedures in advancing it. He also addressed the homelessness issue, expressing contempt that the township failed to live up to a commitment to help the homeless following the deal that made the arts district project possible.  The property used for the project had been considered for use for a homelessness facility.

Mayor Sean Spiller defended Montclair’s commitment to combating homelessness, saying it contributes to groups offering services to the homeless every year.  He added that the rent-control ordinance had been thoroughly subjected to the proper procedures and had been crafted with all interests in mind. Responding to a caller who said that he did not want the police involved in enforcing evictions, Township Manager Tim Stafford said that those duties are actually handled by the county sheriff’s office.

For her part, housing activist and resident Deirdre Malloy said that there were dozens of landlords in Montclair who had been raising rents “unconscionably” and not understanding the suffering of tenants.   She urged landlords to “come to the table” to discuss the issue and to stop making threats, and she added that the lack of a need for a rent freeze was “unrealistic.”  

When public comment was done, the council passed on first reading an ordinance extending the moratorium of rent increases.  Manager Stafford said that he expected it to take effect immediately when it is passed on second reading, likely on January 5.  It would be retroactive to January 1, one day after the expiration of the current ordinance, which extended the original ordinance passed earlier in 2020.  The ordinance the council passed at this meeting is the third ordinance overall freezing rent increases.

Also, the council passed a resolution to enter into an agreement with the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation (MNDC) to establish remote learning centers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, who abstained from the vote on the resolution due to his connections to the MNDC, praised Mayor Spiller for his leadership in getting the agreement in place.  It was passed 6-0-1.   

In reviewing the council’s agenda for December 15, Councilor Russo asked about the resolution to appoint an alternate public defender.  Karasick explained that an alternate public defender would be appointed and be on call to handle cases when the public defender would have to recuse himself from a case or could not handle a case due to schedule conflicts.  He added that if the alternate public defender handles a session, by which the municipal public defender is paid, then he would be paid for the session instead of the regular public defender.  Attorney William Fried is expected to take the new position.  

Toward the end of the meeting, Manager Stafford announced that COVID-19 testing would take place at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park on Monday, December 7, and Tuesday, December 8, between 2 P.M. and 7 P.M. 

He also said that children could write letters to Santa Claus and get a letter back from Santa by writing him care of the municipal building at 205 Claremont Avenue.  The deadline for letters to Santa is Tuesday, December 15 to ensure a reply.