By Joshua Burd
A judge has blocked the implementation of a new rent control ordinance in Montclair, siding with property owners who contested the measure after its passage earlier this month.
According to the landlords and the newly formed Montclair Property Owners Association, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey R. Beacham on Monday enjoined the township from rolling out the ordinance. Beacham, who sits in Newark, ordered that Montclair cannot take any such action until further court proceedings, granting relief to the landlords after they blasted the township council for acting in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
The judge has scheduled a hearing for June 3 to determine whether the injunction will become permanent, the property owners said in a news release. They are seeking to halt the rent control measure until New Jersey’s state of emergency is lifted, which would allow them time to collect petition signatures for a referendum against the ordinance.
“Not only does this order validate our claim under the law in this specific case, it is a warning to all municipalities who, under the cover of emergency, would seek to pass politically motivated legislation at a time when the public, both practically and legally, is deprived of its right to express itself or mount challenge,” said Charles Gormally, the attorney with Brach Eichler LLC who is representing the petitioners. The group includes landlords and developers Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen.
“The court materials were submitted in advance to the municipality in an effort to persuade the council to stay the ordinance voluntarily,” Gormally added. “The lack of official comment as to the legal aspects of this suit may be defensible, but on the political side of things, for not one councilperson to make a statement in support of the ordinance or the process under which it was developed and passed is very telling.”
Proponents of the rent control law on Monday said they were digging in for a fight.
“We expect the township to vigorously defend the implementation of our ordinance,” Ahava Felicidad, president of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, told the outlet Montclair Local. “The Tenants Organization of Montclair Advocacy Group will not back down from doing what is right — especially during these unprecedented times. They — the uncaring and unconscionable — can’t take away what tenants vitally need.”
The property owners filed suit on April 15, just over a week after the township council adopted the rent control ordinance. The action follows a multiyear effort by tenant groups and other advocates who pushed for rent control amid what they say is the town’s increasing gentrification, seeking to protect lower-income residents and minorities.
But the property owners cried foul, noting that the council acted in the midst of the pandemic, after Gov. Phil Murphy had ordered residents to stay at home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The group and the Montclair Property Owners Association also allege the council gave little notice that the ordinance would be introduced for a first reading on March 10.
“The claims by tenant advocates that the ordinance was ‘studied, debated, negotiated, revised and ultimately produced by the township council unanimously last month is fair to property owners,’… and that property owners’ interests were ‘taken into account’ is a ridiculous contention,” said Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association and president of Axiom Communications. “The homeowners and property owners in Montclair are more than capable to speak for themselves and would have preferred to do their own advocacy rather than have the tenants declare themselves the proper party to represent the interests of owners — and the council should have known that.”