Appeals Court Sends Montclair Rent Control Issue Back to Trial Court

Montclair, NJ – New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division judges Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr.; Heidi Willis Currier and Patrick DeAlmeida delivered an opinion today which would allow for a referendum on the question of rent control in the Township.

The Court held that the Township Clerk’s decision that the Montclair Property Owners Association’s petition for a ballot question on rent control lacked sufficient signatures was unreasonable, given “the limiting circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Governor’s emergency order precluding door-to-door solicitations.” The Court held that the Clerk should have phoned individual signers for confirmation of their signatures.

The appeals court sent the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings.

“Hope springs forward and with the same absolute certainty that this journeys revitalization began we at the Tenants Organization of Montclair are unwavering in our commitment to the implementation of our April 7, 2020 approved rent control ordinance,” says AhavaFelicidad, president of Tenants Organization of Montclair (TOOM).

“This very long, very twisty-turny journey will go on a little longer,” adds Toni Martin of TOOM. “There will be a vote of the people of Montclair, which the Tenants Organization of Montclair fully believes will finally bring protection to renters, moderate limits on rent hikes, and some stability to our town. Gentrification has been on a rampage. It is well past time to stop the dissolution of our diverse community.”

Martin adds that today’s ruling was not a ruling on rent control, but rather the issue of proper methods of electronic vote certification by the Town Clerk.

“In no way did the court suggest that the Town Clerk was politically motivated, as the MPOA has charged. The MPOA’s contention that landlords have been denied their civil rights is absurd on its face,” adds Martin. “Let’s get on with it, and vote NO on the landlord’s petition to block the very reasonable 4.25% cap on annual rent increases – 2.5% for seniors – embodied in the ordinance passed by the Township Council.”

Montclair Township Council passed the rent control ordinance on April 7, 2020. The ordinance would limit annual rent increases in the Township to 2.5 percent for seniors and 4.25 percent for other tenants, with some exceptions.

Earlier this year, Judges Heidi W. Currier and Greta Goodenbrown of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division granted the Township’s motion to appeal Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham’s March 16 ruling which ordered the Township Clerk to certify the Montclair Property Owners Association’s petition to put the ordinance on a ballot as a referendum question.

“Left unfettered, rising rents threaten to diminish the diversity that makes Montclair such a special place to live, work, and raise a family,” says Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller. “That’s why I was proud to stand with the Tenants Organization of Montclair, advocates, and my council colleagues to fight for commonsense rent control regulations in Montclair. Today’s ruling simply means that our fight to protect residents is not over yet. I remain committed to advocating for commonsense rent regulations until they become the law of the land. Especially in this difficult year, residents deserve some measure of protection from unreasonable rent increases.”

“If its past obstruction and politicking in this matter is any indication, we expect that Montclair officials will continue their attempts to disrupt the Referendum process. But the writing is on the wall: this matter is headed for the ballot and the voters will have a chance to decide,” says Ron Simoncini, Executive Director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, which supports the Referendum.

Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis had this to say:

Today the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed that as a government we should make every effort, especially when there is a public health emergency, to safeguard democratic norms including petitioning. Regardless if you are for or against this version of rent control that will now likely end up on the ballot in early 2022, the last few years have taught us how important it is to protect the rights of the people to participate in their democracy, whether that is voting, petitioning or simply sharing their opinions.

Just in the last two years, our council meetings have gone virtual, forcing people to have to deal with a clunky system in order to have their voices heard. Our voting has vollied from all in person to all mail to the most recent hybrid approach, confusing voters and resulting in many votes not being counted, including in our 2020 municipal election. And having been someone who had to gather petition signatures in a pandemic to get on the ballot in the first place, I know first hand how cumbersome that particular process is.

All around, I think the pandemic demands that we be more flexible and accommodating. In fact now the court has said as much. In my view, that’s a good and healthy thing for our local democracy.

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  1. Shame on holdover township Councilors Spiller, Hurlock, Schlager and Russo from the last Administration. They were late to the table to act on needed rent controls to start with here, given how rife the market was with speculation.

    Then, they rushed through a flawed bill that didn’t cover everyone, passed really just to pacify tenant advocates right before the last 2020 Council elections.

    Next, they allowed Administration top staff to act like anti-democratic autocrats, no different than right-wing state governments. Letting the town Clerk apply hanging-chad signature reviews to stop a legal, democratic petition process. To win on false technical grounds rather than the merits of the position.

    NJ.’s Appellate Court has just kicked their butts and exposed another wasted political “legal show” by our Township Attorney. Even forgetting the possible $300 thousand in litigant legal costs we may have to cover.

    That’s because we will now negotiate the very same revised terms that could have put been in place last year to provide reasonable rent protections. However, it will be drafted from a much weaker place with landlords now — given the coming ‘must do’ referendum in the wings, should there be no deal.…/montclair-nj-letter-to-the…/

  2. I forget the legalese that shields us from paying the legal fees, but, yes, let’s forget about that happening. On all else – ditto.

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