MONTCLAIR, NJ – The Montclair Township Council voted through an ordinance Tuesday night establishing rent control in Montclair.
Mayor Robert Jackson, Councilor Sean Spiller, and Councilor Renee Baskerville attended the meeting, six feet apart, at Montclair Municipal Building. Councilor Robert Russo, Councilor Robin Schlager, Councilor William Hurlock and Councilor Rich McMahon attended virtually from home.
The meeting began with a moment of silence for the mother of Councilor Russo, Florence Chiego Russo.
A call-in queue for public comment was used during the meeting, which was dominated by commentators who were either for or against the rent control ordinance.
The ordinance, introduced at the March 10 council meeting, has had a long history of being discussed in Montclair, with efforts by William Scott, chairman of the local NAACP’s Housing Committee, and more recently, Tenants Organization of Montclair (TOOM), whose members spoke out passionately at council meetings, often attending with large groups of residents to make their presence known. The group shared stories at the podium of having had their rents increased 25-30% and how many have had take second jobs to save their homes.
The rent control ordinance, introduced at the March 10 council conference meeting, limits annual rent increases to 4.25 percent, and 2.5 percent for seniors. The ordinance does not apply to buildings with less than four residential units. The controls would exist over the 10-year life of the ordinance. Read the full ordinance here.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, a group called the Montclair Property Owners Association created a petition to stop an ordinance, asserting that owners of some 800 apartments in Montclair “have committed to a voluntary rent freeze for the next 90 days.” The group, whose members and supporters were vocal during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, called out the council for conducting business or making significant decisions that would impact the town long term during the pandemic and requested that the council postpone the vote.
Following public comment, the Montclair Town Council made statements acknowledging what they heard during public comment, how they felt about the process and how they would be voting.
Councilor Russo stayed on the call for three hours to listen to every single comment, before voting and then leaving the meeting to attend to family matters.
During council comments, Russo said of rent control, “This is nothing new. This is an issue that has been going on for 20 years since I was mayor 20 year ago. This is an issue that is very difficult, and I appreciate the landlords’ concerns. I don’t understand why there is so much hostility. This is an ordinance that is a moderate, compromised ordinance. I personally would have wanted an even lower increase in rent to be a cap.”
Russo added that while he respected all the landlords that spoke, he heard nothing that changed his mind from a month ago when the ordinance was introduced.
When the roll was called for the vote, Councilors Baskerville, Russo, Spiller, Schlager and Hurlock all voted for the ordinance. Mayor Jackson and Councilor McMahon both abstained.
Councilor Baskerville asked township attorney Ira Karasick if the ordinance would take effect immediately, expressing concerns that some landlords might increase parking, pet or storage fees or take other actions. Karasick said the ordinance would be effective 20 days from Tuesday (during that time signatures for a referendum could be gathered). Karasick said an emergency resolution would have to be supported by five members of the council to have the ordinance take effect immediately.
Following the vote to adopt the ordinance, Councilor Baskerville asked to make a resolution to have the ordinance take effect immediately, but none of the other council members seconded her motion.
“And I’m not surprised,” Councilor Baskerville said, in response to the other council members’ silence.
Montclair Township Manager Timothy Stafford relayed grave news regarding the latest official reports from the township: 193 confirmed COVID-19 cases; 21 individuals have not survived the illness.