Rent control in one of New Jersey’s more popular towns won’t be implemented as planned, as two groups of property owners recently won in court and will now look to challenge the measure via a public question to voters.
Barely two weeks ago, Montclair’s town council passed an ordinance that limits the amount landlords can raise rents on an annual basis. The regulation caps annual increases at 4.25 percent and at 2.5 percent for seniors, an effort designed to keep the town affordable.
The law, which applies to most apartment buildings with more than four residential units but exempts two, three, and four-family residences, was set to take effect on April 27. But late last week, the Township of Montclair Committee of Petitioners and the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) filed suit to block the ordinance, claiming that the realities of COVID-19 prevent them from petitioning against the ordinance.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, a healthcare and economic disaster of proportions never before experienced in our memory…Montclair refused all requests to postpone its partisan motivated adoption of a contentious rent control ordinance,” the lawsuit states.
The groups, made up of individuals and companies that own more than 1,000 rental properties in Montclair, filed the case on April 16 in Essex County Court. The complaint claims that Montclair knew that by enacting the law during times of social distancing, the community “would not be able to exercise the power of protest through referendum.”
Under a statute called N.J.S.A. 40:69A-185, individuals or groups have the right to protest an ordinance that’s enacted by a municipality by gathering signatures equal to at least 15% of the total votes cast in the town’s last election. But the groups say they can’t possibly complete that task within the allotted 20 days the state statute allows them.
“Plaintiffs cannot canvass the Montclair community and engage in the necessary face-to-face interaction to educate the electorate and obtain their signature for a petition to protest the ordinance,” the lawsuit says. “To do so would be a direct violation of Governor Murphy’s [Executive Orders] and runs the risk of Plaintiffs’ members’ contracting or spreading COVID-19.”
Essex County Judge Jeffrey Beacham issued temporary restraints on Montclair’s rent control on Friday last week, meaning the law won’t be able to take effect as planned. The groups now plan to submit a petition to stop the implementation of the rent control ordinance and have the matter decided by the voters of Montclair via an election referendum question pending the end of the State of Emergency over COVID-19.
The Tenants Organization of Montclair, who helped craft the rent control ordinance over the last year, blasted MPOA earlier this month, stating that the group “has only popped into local view in the past two weeks.”
They additionally claimed that Ron Simoncini, Executive Director of MPOA, is “a public relations representative for real estate companies, who acts as a hired gun for landlords whenever rent leveling efforts near success in New Jersey communities.”
The challenging groups and Montclair officials are scheduled to meet in court on June 3 to discuss if a preliminary injunction should be issued over the ordinance, a hearing that could take place remotely if COVID-19 restrictions at New Jersey’s courthouses are still in place.