MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair Township Council conference meetings are normally sparsely attended affairs, but not the council’s March 10 conference meeting.
As many people as could fit into the second-floor conference room at the Montclair Municipal Building gathered to comment on the planned discussion of a rent control ordinance, the culmination of several months of work by and with housing and tenants’ groups.
Several members of the community said that rent control was necessary to preserve the socioeconomic diversity of the township and allow it to remain a welcoming place and a safe haven for lower-income families and historically shortchanged minority groups.
William Scott of the Montclair Housing Commission began the public discussion in earnest, explaining the conference call he’d just had before the meeting with Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller about his proposed rent control ordinance, which the councilor planned to explain in detail once public comment was over.
Scott made it clear that he hoped that Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville’s proposed ordinance would also be entertained. “We want to make sure that politics are not going to be played into this situation. We shouldn’t be faced with choosing one ordinance over the other,” he said. “We want to see both ordinances on the table for a review.”
Spiller proposed a measure that would cap annual rent increases at 5 percent, with a 3 percent cap for senior citizens. In public comment, Mitch Kahn, vice president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, had touched on the exemption on smaller multi-unit structures, insisting that only landlords who live in apartments in their own buildings should be exempt from increases due to the personal stake they have in keeping up their properties.
Dr. Baskerville, who lamented that her proposed rent-control ordinance had not been seconded at earlier meetings, took the opportunity in the discussion phase of Councilor Spiller’s ordinance to explain her proposed ordinance. She differed from Councilor Spiller on rent increase caps, proposing that rent increases be kept at 3.5 percent and 2 percent for seniors. She had considered pegging rent increases to the consumer price index (CPI) but the CPI has actually been very low for years and that a fixed rate would be more amenable to both tenants and landlords.
She also made a statement about her role in trying to get a rent-control ordinance introduced, explaining that she had hoped to begin a discussion around the issue.
“My intent in introducing a rent control ordinance was to be in the spirit of which we all should govern, from a place of inclusivity, offering representation and a voice for the renters in Montclair,” she said. “The goal of this ordinance was to spark a robust dialogue among my colleagues and begin a broader conversation among our many stakeholders, about rent control as one of many possible tools that could be deployed as a way of bridging the emerging socioeconomic gap in our Township rental and housing stock. And it appears that I have done just that,” said Baskerville.
Baskerville said that the township faced a critical time in dealing with rent control when 45 percent of Montclair’s residents were renters many of them were spending more than half their income in rent rather than a more reasonable 30 percent. She added that she was “comforted in knowing that I have sounded the alarm and it is being heard by my Council colleagues.”
Baskerville had worked out her plans for an ordinance after several discussions with members of the community, which also included ideas on adding language to provide workforce housing for public employees and a study the needs of the township’s millennial population to see how rents can be kept low for prospective residents of that generation. She told Councilor Spiller that she was “glad you’re on board” with rent control, suggesting that he had come late to the issue, which Councilor Spiller called a mischaracterization of his position. He insisted that he had genuine interest in rent control because his own ward has the highest concentration or renters in town. Councilor Spiller and Dr. Baskerville are mayoral candidates in the May 12 municipal election.
One controversial issue was vacancy decontrol, a mechanism that allows larger rent increases for vacant apartments when most tenants are living in rent-control units that cause landlords to lose money. Called an “escape valve,” vacancy decontrol has been used in other communities to allow a balance of tenants’ and landlords’ interests.
In public comment, though, lawyer Joan Pransky said that Montclair has passed the point where vacancy decontrol can work because overall rents are already high.
“Every time you let a tenant move out and you free up a unit, that’s one less unit that’s affordable,” Pransky warned.
Pransky also spoke out against exempting three-unit, four-unit, and five-unit apartment buildings from rent control because landlords were buying the properties through limited-liability corporations and are raising rents to gentrify them. Many of those properties, she said, were in the Fourth Ward.
In picking a number of units at which to exempt landlords from rent control, Spiller suggested applying rent control to four units and above or five units and above. He said that home values have increased 24 percent in the last eight years, which have kept taxes low, but he was aware that rent control‘s negative effect on home values have defeated rent-control efforts in Montclair before. He said it was necessary to “pick a number that doesn’t dramatically affect the stock of your home prices.”
Homebuyers, Spiller said, usually look at purchasing single-family or two- or three-family homes.
“When you artificially control the costs of rents in those smaller property values, it’s going to impact those smaller property values,” he said. “When those smaller property values are impacted, and it also affects your single-family home values, that’s an impact on all residents,” Spiller added.
He conceded that, despite the numbers he threw around, he didn’t know where the appropriate number – control on four-unit rental properties and above, control of unit rental properties and above – should be.
Spiller’s proposal also included a review board to look at properties every ten years and the appointment of a rent control board with an enforcement officer.
The council moved ahead to craft a basic ordinance to be passed on first reading and discussed for amending at a later meeting. The preliminary ordinance they agreed on sets a 4.25 percent cap on annual rent increases covering apartment houses with four or more with a 2 percent cap on annual rent increases for seniors. A cap on vacancy decontrol was set on 10 percent. Also, the ordinance would require that landlords who win tax appeals have to pass 100 percent of the dividend from the appeal onto the tenants.
The council passed it 5-0-1. Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon was absent, and Mayor Robert Jackson abstained, explaining that his lame-duck status as mayor meant that he wouldn’t be accountable for such an important vote if he chose to cast one.
Toward the end of the conference meeting, the council passed an item originally intended for passage at the March 24 meeting – awarding a contract for repairs at the Edgemont Park shelter House.
Acting Township manager Tim Stafford wanted it passed sooner to take advantage of the lack of use of the shelter house due to upcoming senior events being canceled because of coronavirus and complete the repairs more quickly. The council voted 5-0 to award the contract, Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo having stepped out.