MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council held the second remote meeting since the imposition of a statewide lockdown order against the coronavirus pandemic on April 7. 

The conference meeting was beset by technical glitches at the start as a result of some faulty phone connections.

Mayor Robert Jackson and his two would-be successors, Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, were in the chambers for the meeting, while the other councilors joined in by phone.  In spite of the difficulties, the council managed to pass the hotly debated rent-control ordinance on second reading.   

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The rent-control ordinance was the major issue on an otherwise light agenda, and Mayor Jackson said at the start before opening the meeting to public comment that comments for that ordinance would be taken during the hearing for it, not during regular public comment.  Acting Township Manger Tim Stafford fielded calls for both public comment and the hearing.

Several residents called during public comment to express their opinions of the hearing for the rent-control issue rather than the issue itself, demanding that the hearing be put off due to the poor telephone connections and arguing also that a pandemic was not the time to be talking about a weighty issue that demanded easier public access. 

Resident Scott Kennedy said that the council should only concentrate on pro forma business during the pandemic, lamenting the “technology debacle” affecting the meeting.

“The technology is a disaster,” Kennedy said.

But many of the calls during public comment did directly address the rent-control issue, and Mayor Jackson repeatedly warned callers not to comment on it until the hearing.  Those who ignored him found themselves cut off. 

In the end, Mayor Jackson had to relent and end the public comment and go straight to the hearing, which went ahead despite continued complaints during the hearing that this moment was not the appropriate time due to COVID-19 and the telephone problems.  Many callers pleaded with the council to table the ordinance for these reasons.

Despite these protests, the hearing proceeded as scheduled and lasted nearly three hours, with many landlords calling in to express their opposition to it.  One caller, a 41-year Montclair resident and market-oriented economist by the name of Larry Hayes, said that even if he were a proponent of rent control, he would still find this ordinance “profoundly objectionable.”  He complained that the ordinance should focus on current township residents rather than anyone who moved into town, since current residents are the very people the ordinance is designed to benefit in the first place.  Hayes also said that it created two classes of rental households, those with seniors and those without seniors.  He said there are rental households that can afford to pay more rent, whether or not there are seniors in them, just as there are homeowners who have trouble paying property taxes and can expect to have greater trouble as the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis take hold.

“Why we should blindly privilege all renters over all homeowners isn’t clear,” Hayes said. 

The ordinance sets rent increase caps at 4.25 percent for tenants under 65 and 2.5 percent for seniors.

Resident Andy Cohen, while citing the circumstances of the meeting dictated by the pandemic, expressed a fear that rent control would force property taxes to go up for homeowners, and resident Christopher Rizzo said that the council heard more from the tenants than the landlords, and that most of them did not even know about the rent-control ordinance because it had been passed with little or no advance notice in the March 10 council meeting. 

One landlord providing affordable housing said the ordinance is unfair to landlords like him, considering their contributions to the community.  

When Scott Kennedy called back, he lashed out at Councilor Spiller and Dr. Baskerville for what he called their “lack of a moral and ethical conscience” and an “underhanded,” “sneaky,” and “undemocratic” method to bring up the rent-control ordinance in the middle of a pandemic.

“The two of you have put your desire to be mayor ahead of our community’s needs and the proper functioning of our government,” he exclaimed, demanding a tabling of the ordinance until more people can comment on it in person.  “The people of Montclair are literally dying under your feet!” 

But rent-control advocates called in to push back on that charge, with real estate agent and rent-control activist Deirdre Malloy pointing out that this issue had been discussed publicly at council meetings for over a year and that tenants’ organizations had been advertising their meetings, so the landlords should have been aware.  

“Rent control is very important and while, yes, we understand that some of the landlords in town are not raising rents in an unconscionable way,” she said, “I’d like to say to you that it’s unfortunate that you did not come out, you did not have the opportunity, as you’re saying, to speak, but Sean Spiller, Renée Baskerville, and this entire council have not been trying to do anything behind the scenes.  Nothing could be further [from] the truth!”  William Scott, co-chairman of the Montclair Housing Commission, concurred with Malloy’s remarks, noting that efforts to institute rent control went as far back as 2016. 

Other rent-control proponents who called in included James Harris of the Montclair NAACP, who said it was important to help keep people of color and seniors in town by enabling them to find affordable rents to preserve the town’s diversity , as well as resident Frieda McQueen, who said it was important to maintain stability in rental rates. 

And Reverend Leslie Houseworth-Fields, senior pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, said that the pandemic was the perfect time to help renters stay in their homes and at a time of such uncertainty.

When the hearing finally ended, the council members got to speak. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo said he couldn’t understand the hostility toward the ordinance, saying that it represented a moderate compromise between the interests of renters and landlords and adding that it could be amended if there are problems with it later. Spiller agreed that the ordinance balanced the needs of both sides and added that it would preserve the diversity of Montclair’s population and was meant to regulate not all landlords but the “very bad actors” among them.

First Ward Councilor William Hurlock agreed that the ordinance tried to strike a balance, and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager said that the 4.25-percent rent increase cap was fair in light of even lower rent increase caps in nearby Essex County towns. Schlager also added that the ordinance would help people with their rents at a time when numerous people are losing their jobs – before admitting to having lost her own. 

Baskerville said that she was very excited to vote for the ordinance but added that it was the beginning of the process, saying she was looking forward to ongoing discussions to improve the policy going forward.  “Now is the time to vote yes for this rent stabilization ordinance,” she said.  “If we wait, it will be to late.  There is no better time as approach this Holy Week . . . and in my mind there is no better time to demonstrate that which is right and good.”       

The council passed the ordinance 5-0, with Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon abstaining. 

Jackson said it was inappropriate for him to vote on it when he was planning to step down from the mayor’s office on July 1, and Deputy Mayor McMahon said he was neutral on rent control but was unhappy with how the ordinance was written.  The council had also entertained amending the ordinance to allow for a review three years after instead of the original ten, but it ultimately concluded that it was unnecessary to do and that a new mayor and council could amend it to allow for an earlier review if they so chose. 

Baskerville, fearing attempts by landlords to increase rents or fees before the ordinance takes effect, asked when it would go into affect; Township Attorney Ira Karasick said it would take up to 20 days.  That 20-day period would allow citizens to collect signatures for a referendum on the ordinance.  Once the ordinance was passed, Dr. Baskerville called for an emergency resolution to make the ordinance take effect immediately, but it was not seconded.

The council also passed another resolution that had been scheduled for a vote on April 21 for improvements to Tuers Park in the First Ward.  As with improvements to the field house at Edgemont Park, Manger Stafford said the closure of the parks due to COVID-19 provided a perfect opportunity to begin the work at Tuers Park sooner rather than later and to have it done before the parks reopen.