MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council heard an earful over rent control in public comment at its March 2 conference meeting – which was to be expected, thanks to the unexpected turn on the issue.  Judge Jeffrey Beacham reversed his earlier decision on the township’s rent-control ordinance, now having ruled that Montclair either hold a referendum on the ordinance or repeal it and revisit the issue.  Most callers strongly supported the exhortation that the council keep up the fight, but property owners and their advocates demanded a new approach to the issue.

Advocates for the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) declared that too much money had been spent on litigation and that the time for negotiation was at hand.  Attorney Charles Gormally, who represents the MPOA, complained that Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves was “arbitrary and capricious” when she rejected 168 signatures on the petition filed by the MPOA for a referendum, rejected  27 signatures after the curing of petition, and ultimately determined it was 18 signatures short of the required number.  Gormally said that it was rare for Judge Beacham to admit an error, and he called for a public meeting to reconsider the ordinance as well as the need to repeal it and start over.   Ron Simoncini, executive director of the MPOA, said that the legal battle was getting too expensive, and he claimed that the fight for the ordinance was based on a misguided maxim that rent control equated to affordable housing.  Simoncini said it was more important to create more affordable housing than control rental fees on market-rate units, and he insisted that rent control was an economic, not a racial issue, because fair housing prevents landlords from making decisions on whom to rent to based on race; accordingly, landlords rent to who best qualifies to rent their units.  

Developer Stephen Plofker also called in, saying the he wanted to see a referendum because the public should decide the issue.

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Rent-control advocates would have none of it.  Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair accused the MPOA of failing to engage with them in good faith, and that her tenants’ group has been working with the MPOA under the specter of legal; action.  Martin said that MPOA does not want to talk about the rent-control ordinance; rather, it wants to write it.  Ahava Felicidad called for the township to appeal Judge Beacham’s ruling to a higher court. 

Meanwhile, Deirdre Malloy of the Landlords/Tenant Housing Advisory Committee warned of landlords who may evict tenants on the pretext of occupying the unit themselves or reserving it for a family member but renting it to a new tenant at a higher rate to bypass rent control or the current rent freeze.  Anyone who suspects being the victim of such a practice, she said, can seek recourse by contacting her committee at landlordstenantscommittee@gmail.com.

Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz called in to express concerns about a semi-related issue - a pair of ordinances amending zoning codes that are due for consideration at the township’s next meeting on March 16.  He said that there was no link to the proposals to the ordinances available, and he added that within the proposed  ordinance, the standards for lot widths were deleted, hence there is no explanation of what is actually occurring.  He said that it be tabled until such information can be put forth so that the public can review it and, once it is put forth, be passed back to Planning Board and Zoning Board so the boards can see what is going on.    Schwartz said it had to be fully vetted to see what the ramifications would be, citing possible consequences such as lot line splitting and potentially building more single-family homes.   

Mayor Sean Spiller assured Schwartz that these ordinances are merely discussion items, not action items, and that Planning Board and Zoning Board made the recommendations to the council.  Township Manager Tim Stafford later explained the intent of the two ordinances, saying that the first one would make changes to the zoning ordinance to implement changes in the master plan that were evaluated by the Economic Development Committee, and the second one would make changes to the township code’s land-use ordinances to ensure that affordable to market units comparable to market units, as well as increasing the cash-in-lieu contribution to housing trust fund to reflect construction costs.  

Planning Director Janice Talley is expected to be present for the March 16 meeting in case she needs to answer any questions about the ordinances.

Other callers continued to press for investigating the Montclair firefighter suspected of being part of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, but one caller suggested that perhaps the “vast majority” of people at the Capitol were there to peacefully protest and the firefighter was “not doing anything violent that day.”  

Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo angrily retorted that the rioters at the Capitol had violent intentions to kill and kidnap members of Congress and Capitol police officers, and he held Donald Trump and right-wing groups responsible for it.  The same caller said that high taxes caused rent to go up, and Councilor Russo said that taxes go up because the federal government does not help schools but prefers to spend money on war and space exploration.

Councilor Russo also asked why Montclair relied on so many politically connected law firms to represent the township’s interest.  Township Attorney Ira Karasick replied that he recommended these firms to the council because of their excellence in handling litigation, but Councilor Russo suggested that Montclair hire more local law firms, preferably those with or run by woman and minorities, to handle the township’s legal issues instead.

The only action the council voted on was the bill list, which it approved unanimously.  Also, Mayor Spiller, who bristled at suggestions that rent control was not an issue having to do with race, called such comments a sign of disconnect, and he vowed to continue fighting for rent control by whatever means were necessary. He also assured constituents that the council was dedicated to keeping a rent freeze in place for as long as needed. 

The current freeze expires March 31.