By Joshua Burd
A group of Montclair landlords has sued to overturn a new rent control ordinance in the township, alleging the governing body took action in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when opponents could not fully mobilize against the measure.
The committee of petitioners last week announced the filing of a five-count complaint in the state Superior Court’s Essex County vicinage. They have asked a judge to enjoin the township from implementing the law, which was adopted April 7, until the state of emergency has eased so that they can gather petition signatures for a referendum.
“In addition to being long-term residents in Montclair, each of our petitioners has been involved in its business community and public affairs environment,” said Charles Gormally, a Brach Eichler LLC attorney who is representing the committee. “Our shock over lack of transparency by not soliciting input from homeowners and property owners is only exceeded by our dismay over adopting this election-driven ordinance during a global pandemic.
“This lawsuit has been filed to protect the peoples’ right to protest government action through the referendum process. Government should not adopt legislation knowing that the peoples’ rights to engage in referendum has been functionally eliminated due to the state of emergency.”
The committee includes Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen. Gormally noted that a referendum process requires the committee to circulate a petition and obtain signatures in support within 20 days, which it cannot do in the midst of Gov. Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order and social distancing requirements.
The lawsuit is part of a battle that has brewed for several years in Montclair. Tenant groups and other advocates have pushed for rent control amid what they say is the town’s increasing gentrification, seeking to protect lower-income residents and minorities.
In a statement to the website TAPinto Montclair, the Tenants Organization of Montclair criticized the property owners group as “not a functioning organization in the community.” The tenant advocates also dismissed the notion that the landlords were left out of the debate.
“The ordinance that was studied, debated, negotiated, revised and ultimately produced by the Township Council unanimously last month is fair to property owners,” the Tenants Organization, or TOOM, wrote on April 7. “Their interests and welfare were taken into account, even though only a scarce few even acknowledged the public conversation going on over the past year.”
The governing body passed the rent control ordinance with five yes votes and two abstentions, according to NorthJersey.com. The website reported that the law limits annual rent increases to 4.25 percent, or 2.5 percent for seniors, while two- and three-family homes are exempt.
It is slated to go into effect 20 days from the April 7 meeting, but the landlords’ legal action now looms over the ordinance.
“We have tried on three occasions, the most recent just before filing this lawsuit, to engage the Township in a candid discussion about making the ordinance workable and reasonable in order to avoid court involvement in the midst of a state of emergency, and have not received any response,” Gormally, their attorney, added in a prepared statement last week. “We will continue with these efforts but local politics seems to be a dominant factor.”
The group said it was reluctant to engage in the litigation, which is supported by the Montclair Property Owners Association. The latter was formed in response to the sudden adoption of the rent control ordinance and includes the owners of more than 900 rental units that would be subject to the measure.
“When we learned of the Ordinance, we proposed not increasing rents as a good faith gesture until the Council could open a genuine dialogue about rent control in Montclair from which all property owners, including homeowners, were excluded,” said Ron Simoncini, executive director of the association and president of Axiom Communications. “Instead of entertaining the offer, The Council enacted a patently unenforceable and inequitable ordinance without even considering a single amendment, revealing their bias against property owners of all types.
“From recent discussion with several owners, each had indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90-days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the entire membership is determined to fight back on this until property owners are treated equally under the law.”