Home COVID-19 The Battle Over Rent Control in Montclair

The Battle Over Rent Control in Montclair

by Gabriela Lachapel O'Brien
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It seems as though every few days there is a new development in the battle between tenants and landlords over a rent control ordinance that was adopted by the town in April of 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a brief history, an introduction to the stakeholders, a timeline of events, and where the ordinance currently stands. 

Where It Started

rent control montclair

The idea of rent control has been advocated, argued, and voted on in Montclair since the 1970s. Many attribute the trigger to the construction of the Bay Street train station in Montclair’s fourth ward, which is predominantly African-American, completed in 1981 and had displaced much of the population. Each of the attempts made to introduce a plan for rent control in 1979, 1986, and 2004 all had failed shown in reporting by the Montclair Local News

The Ivy at Chatham

According to 2019 Census data, the median value of housing units in Montclair is $624,700, which is 1.5x greater than that of Essex County and almost double the New Jersey value. Add on the average property tax burden of approximately $19,500, and it comes as no surprise why many residents turn to rent to keep their Montclair address. Currently, 40% of Montclair’s housing units are occupied by renters. Even then, the median rent of $1,704 is still 45% higher than the county median. 

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Throughout the last 30 years, support for rent control has continued to mount in the community however, it wasn’t until a new landlord took over the building at 39-14 North Fullerton Avenue in 2018, increased rent by 15%, and added pet fees, that tenants demanded protection. With the help of the mayor, council members, and committee leaders, the tenants were able to secure an agreement with ownership to decrease the rate. All the parties involved understood the solution would only be a temporary fix to a growing problem. 

Montclair Citizens for Rent Control documents the numerous town council meetings and forums hosted between 2018 and 2020, some in partnership with local organizations such as the Montclair NAACP, PlanetCivic, and United Way of Northern New Jersey, as a rise in popularity among residents and political leaders. In 2019, a group of residents led by AhavaFelicidad, Rev. Safiya Oni Brown, and Antoinette ‘Toni’ Martin, all of Montclair, created the Tenants Organization of Montclair (TOOM) in support of rent control. Together TOOM, the Montclair Housing Commission, and the Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee were the primary drivers behind bringing the proposed law before the Town Council.

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Meet The Players 

These are the primary stakeholders involved in the legal proceedings, which began in April of 2020 shortly after Montclair passed the ordinance. 

Montclair Township – Specifically, the mayor and town council members listed below

Mayor – Sean M. Spiller 

Deputy Mayor/First Ward Councilor – William L. Hurlock 

Councilor-At-Large – Robert J. Russo

Councilor-At-Large – Peter Yacobellis

Second Ward Councilor – Robin Schlager

Third Ward Councilor – Lori Price Abrams

Fourth Ward Councilor – David Cummings

Ira Karasick – Montclair Township attorney 

Montclair Property Owners Association {MPOA} – A group of Montclair landlords and a committee of petitioners from Montclair including:

Steven Plofker {The George, Willow Street Partners, Label Studio 18}

David Genova {Greenwood Development, Preservation Partners, Label Studio 18}

Suzanne Miller {Stanton Realtors}

Paul Weinstein

Brandon McEwen

Charles X. Gormally – Attorney for the Montclair Property Owners Association

Judge Jeffrey Beacham – Essex county superior court judge presiding over the case


October 2019 – March 2020 – In council and committee meetings, the township explores implementing a rent control ordinance with consultations from industry professionals and studies of nearby towns that have implemented similar measures. 

April 7, 2020 – Rent Stabilization Ordinance adopted. At this point, opponents would have 20 days to submit a petition for a referendum.

April 15, 2020 – MPOA files a lawsuit against Montclair stating the enactment of the ordinance was a political move and unlawful use of power because it was passed during the shutdowns associated with COVID-19, and the usual channels to debate the law was either extremely limited or not permitted at all. The MPOA would be required to submit a petition with signatures from at least 15% of registered voters that participated in the last election, a total of 1,020 signatures. 

April 17, 2020 – Judge Jeffrey Beacham issues a temporary restraining order prohibiting the law from being enforced. The town was given until May 3rd to provide a response, which would be presented before the courts on June 3rd. 

May 1, 2020 – Montclair implements rent increase moratorium until August 1st

May 3, 2020 – Montclair files a motion to vacate the restraining order on the rent control ordinance

May 12, 2020 – Judge Jeffrey Beacham denies Montclair’s motion to lift the restraining order 

May 22, 2020 – MPOA launches petition on their website to block rent control and hold a referendum

July 21, 2020Motion filed by MPOA officially requesting access to residents’ contact information from the town, which is needed to collect additional digital signatures for the petition since they can no longer go door-to-door. 

August 25, 2020Montclair is ordered to comply with the request for residents’ contact information. The New Jersey Open Public Records Act typically does not permit this type of information to be shared, however, the judge cited limitations due to COVID-19.  

September 14-21, 2020 – Residents receive numerous text on behalf of the MPOA 

September 23, 2020Petition filed by MPOA including 1,530 signatures, out of 1,020 required, to put rent control up for referendum vote in the November election. Unfortunately, this would not be possible because mail-in ballots had already been printed. 

October 14, 2020 – Montclair issues notice to MPOA rejecting their petition citing over 600 invalid signatures representing a shortfall of over 100. MPOA has ten days to amend this by filing a supplemental petition to provide the additional signatures. 

October 19, 2020Judge Jeffrey Beacham issues a stay on the 10 days after a request from MPOA

November 11, 2020 – MPOA requests an additional extension, two days before the parties were due back in court

December 4, 2020 – MPOA files brief with the Essex county superior court compelling the Montclair town clerk to certify the first petition. Charles Gormally stated in the brief

If the clerk again applies her flawed ‘methodology’ for examining e-signatures to these new e-signatures, the plaintiffs’ statutory right of referendum will be irreparably destroyed with no further amendments permitted by the referendum statute. Therefore, the risk of irreparable harm is not eliminated by the filing of an amended petition.”

December 7, 2020 – MPOA submits amended petition to Montclair township with 164 “cured” e-signatures 

December 14, 2020 – Montclair town clerk rejects the second petition due to 77 defective signatures

January 15, 2021 Judge Jeffrey Beacham terminated the injunction placed in April of 2020 on the rent control ordinance and siding with Montclair.

January 25, 2021MPOA files a motion with the Essex county superior court to evaluate the prior rejections of the petitions and place another stay on the ordinance until February 19th, preventing it from being enacted. Charles Gormally provided new evidence from two cases, which established the precedent that the town clerk did not have the authority to reject the petition only based on non-matching signatures. 

February 22, 2021The judge reversed the January 15th ruling and gave Montclair 20 days to repeal the rent control ordinance or schedule a special election. Montclair can also choose to appeal the decision.

March 2, 2021 – In a township council meeting, representatives from MPOA stated they would prefer to negotiate at this point and avoid further litigation as the effort thus far has been costly. Charles Gormally also called for a public hearing to scratch the current ordinance and start over.

March 5, 2021Ira Karasick made a statement that Montclair was planning to appeal the judge’s latest decision, but no appeal had been formally filed as of this date.

March 16, 2021 – The town clerk certified the previously rejected petitions in the town council meeting, and on the same day, Judge Jeffrey Beacham reissued his February ruling, which gave Montclair an additional 20 days to repeal the ordinance or schedule a referendum within 40-60 days.

Next Steps

While we await the decision from the township on whether they will appeal the decision altogether, repeal the ordinance, or proceed with scheduling an election within the next two months, MPOA has filed an additional lawsuit against Montclair, alleging the town violated their civil rights by not being asked to participate in the creation of the ordinance. This is scheduled to be heard in the courts on April 16th. MPOA has always maintained it is not against rent control but seeks changes to parts of the ordinance that the group opposes and that the landlords, tenants, homeowners, and residents alike deserve to exercise their rights to public discourse.

The Tenant Organization of Montclair, other advocacy groups, and local officials alike are confident about the future of rent control and are in support of imposing such measures that would protect residents while also preserving the town’s diversity and culture. 

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