MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had yet another meeting with a light agenda that was dominated by public comment on the rent control issue. During the meeting, a new Municipal Clerk was appointed and the Deputy Clerk retirement was announced.
During public comment at the council’s remote September 29 meeting, Mayor Sean Spiller and the councilors heard complaints from residents, many of them regulars in public comment, about underhanded practices of the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) to get Montclair residents to sign a petition to require a ballot referendum asking whether or not to block implementation of the rent-control ordinance passed by the previous council under then-Mayor Robert Jackson on April 7.
The council, as well as Township Attorney Ira Karasick, showed tremendous sympathy for the residents and little for the MPOA.
The township had sent an e-mail to residents that let them know in advance that the MPOA had succeeded in getting contact information for residents over the objections of the governing body.
Resident Betsy Kessler, a homeowner, called in to discuss that subject. She said that she had received two e-mails and two texts, for a total of four contacts, from the MPOA, which she had considered to be harassment. Karasick, who had already heard from Kessler privately, explained for the benefit of the public that the governing body had been required to provide the landlords in the MPOA lists containing cell phone numbers for texts, e-mail addresses, or both, and he added that the MPOA had interpreted the court ruling as allowing two contacts per method (text and e-mail) per resident for a total of up to four permissible contacts per resident asking for a signature on the petition. He said that this may not violate the letter of the law, but it does violate the spirit.
Karasick reported, in fact, that as many 42 residents had called him to report receiving at least five contacts from the property owners’ group, and he pledged to follow up and report the violations. In the meantime, the petition has been submitted to the clerk’s office for validation, and if it is validated, it will lead to a referendum. Karasick did add, though, that now that the petition has been submitted, the MPOA should not be allowed to contact anyone further for politicking. The intent of allowing the MPOA access to Montclair residents’ contact information was to solicit for petition signatures in a pandemic and nothing more.
“So, if anything comes further,” Karasick said, “I would urge the mayor and the council to please let me know.”
The MPOA has insisted that the rent-control ordinance had been conceived in secret, but Karasick disputed that, citing the months of public debate and discussion and the sixty to seventy people who called in to the Montclair Township Council meeting at which the ordinance was passed. Mayor Spiller defended the ordinance anew, saying that it had indeed been developed after several discussions over the course of a year and had been crafted to be fair to all parties.
Other callers agreed with another assertion from Mayor Spiller – that the texts and e-mails the MPOA had sent to residents were misleading.
The general consensus was that the MPOA crafted its e-mails and texts in such a way as to suggest that the council had passed an ordinance that would lead to the “devastation of the financial impact of rent control,” as Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair put it, and that the intent of their petition was to allow for modifications to the ordinance. Martin scoffed at this, challenging the landlords to explain what those modifications would be. Ahava Felicidad, also of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, concurred with Karasick about the harassment of residents through multiple text and e-mail contacts and urged tenants who need representation to contact her group at email@example.com.
Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo was particularly disgusted by the MPOA’s use of deceptive language in its campaign to call for a referendum on the rent-control ordinance, likening it to consumer fraud. He regretted that the council could not prevent the MPOA from accessing the resident’s contact information. “I’m just disappointed that people do the type of thing they’ve been doing,” he said.
One caller looked at the ordinance from a landlord’s perspective. Diane Moore said that the township ought to have access to the rent rolls to see how landlords would fare under rent control. She compared a developer who comes in and builds a large apartment building with rents at $4,000 per month and can prosper with rents for seniors capped at annual increases of 2.5 percent to a hypothetical landlord who has an older, smaller building and labors under the same cap. (Under the ordinance, the cap on annual rent increases for apartments rented by tenants under 65 is 4.25 percent.)
Mayor Spiller urged Moore, who said she was for stabilized rent, to review the ordinance, which he says has numerous provisions that allows landlords to bring forward to the rent stabilization board any hardships they may have and allows for the sharing of financials to see if any exemptions are needed. He also said that financials can be ascertained and reviewed, and Karasick added that, under the ordinance, rent rolls would be registered and submitted to the township annually.
In terms of new legislation, the council unanimously passed on first reading an ordinance to establish a rental assistance program for low-income rental apartment tenants who live in eligible units as an amendment to the township’s affordable housing ordinance. The amendment features a program that will provide a grant to those who rent deed-restricted affordable units in Montclair Township to pay for up to the first three months’ rent or $2,500.00, whichever is greater. The council also unanimously passed a resolution awarding a contract for tax court appraisals and tax assessment inspection services to Hendricks Appraisal, Inc. in an amount not to exceed $67,500. Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams asked about possibly higher costs, and Township Manager Tim Stafford explained that he would come back to the council to seek an upward amendment for any higher costs incurred should more assessments and tax appeals become necessary.
The council also issued a proclamation honoring Deputy Municipal Clerk Juliet Lee, who is retiring. At the end of its executive session, the council unanimously approved the hiring of a new Municipal Clerk, Angeles Bermudez Nieves, for a three-year term.