MontClairVoyant: When Spending Is Close to the Edge(mont)

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

The Township Council finally got the ball rolling on replacing the Edgemont Park pedestrian bridge. Can you believe the contracted cost will be $187,750 for such a small overpass?

Sincerely,

A Man Called Ove(rpass)

MUCH too much. With that kind of money, you could almost buy a print of the “Dogs Playing Poker” painting.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

But now that today’s column has criticized the ridiculous cost of that bridge, your influence as a local pundit will undoubtedly drive the cost way down. Congratulations!

Sincerely,

Twist and Clout

Yup, the price tag just got drastically reduced to $187,749. The $1 saved can go into the “kitty” of those dogs playing poker — or into the “doggie bag” of cats playing poker.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Their lack of opposable thumbs has me wondering if cats and dogs really play cards. Anyway, why is the cost of the new future bridge so high?

Sincerely,

Tap Ann Z

Don’t forget the cost of the bridge’s walkway, its two railings, the air over the walkway, and the rights to allow on-site loudspeakers to continually blare “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Is Toney’s Brook really troubled water?

Sincerely,

Exstreamly Curious

Its churned-up flow wrecked the bridge during Hurricane Ida a year ago. And every time Toney’s Brook visits a therapist, the therapist’s office gets wet.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

You don’t say. Why did it take a year for the Council to approve a replacement bridge?

Sincerely,

Delay’s Potato Chips

Maybe some dentists were invited to bid, but they specialize in even smaller bridges.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Meanwhile, I heard Montclair’s Rent Control Board held its first meeting. A welcome event?

Sincerely,

Lease-a Murkowski

Yes. Here’s hoping for lots of landlord compliance with our town’s relatively new rent control law. The more compliance, the more attendees at meetings of the Landlord Fan Club.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Does the Landlord Fan Club even exist?

Sincerely,

Lease-a Leslie

I wanted to hire a detective to find out, but the security deposit was too large.


DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Finally, your thoughts on Janet Torsney being named Montclair’s library director?

Sincerely,

Check-Out Charlie

Great choice! She has excellent career experience, a strong local history, and the coveted endorsement of all three Bronte sisters.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Isn’t that 19th-century trio of authors dead?

Sincerely,

Wuthering Rites

As dead as the fiscal responsibility behind some Montclair projects.

 

Dave Astor, author, is the MontClairVoyant. His opinions about politics and local events are strictly his own and do not represent or reflect the views of Baristanet.

 

 

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10 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t really speak to the reasonableness of the cost. I suspect that the NJ DEP oversight required stream bed/bank improvements and I also suspect the bridge will likely be designed to handle a muni vehicle (e.g. pickup truck) for trash collection.

    What I am disappointed about is that this project took a year to get to contract. In that time, I wished the Township had directed CDBG funding or applied for supplemental (Reprogrammed) CDBG grants to offset the cost. We have used CDBG funds previously (2015) for the Park House improvements and in other parks (Rand). Instead, we are taking the full amount out of our capital reserve.

    The township also did not share the design of the new bridge. After all the flak over the last Edgemont Park House improvements, it is understandable. Their choice also aligns with this Council breezing over the public budget process review and eliminating remote public comment during its meetings.

    Lastly, the park is a designated historic resource in our Master Plan and it would have been nice if some historic folks (e.g. our HPC) could have given advisory design comments. I realize the bridge just connects two asphalt paved paths, but still.

    Again, we had nothing but time to do all this.

    Oh well.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Frank.

    I guess it’s possible the bridge needs to be strong enough for a vehicle to drive over it, but I wonder if the bridge would be wide enough. Also, a vehicle could avoid the bridge by going on Parkway to get from one part of Edgemont Park to another.

    Yes, the year-long delay was pretty pathetic. And if there was a chance to get partial funding in some other way, that’s an unfortunate “miss.”

    As for Montclair officials yet again not being transparent enough, perhaps they need to read more ghost stories? 🙂

  3. I write from the perspective of an owner of a three family home. Since this foolish rent control ordinance was passed, I try to accept it and move on but since you mentioned the new Rent Control Board, a major feature of the new ordinance, you have triggered my outage again. For a number of reasons this is a bad ordinance for Montclair, particularly as it pertains to small property owners (2-4 family homes). Here are some thoughts that raise my ire:

    The recent appointments tilt the Rent Control Board in favor of tenants rather than being evenly balanced between landlord and tenant representatives.

    A. This rent control ordinance adversely affects owners of small properties who were initially except from the ordinance. Here are several comments.

    1. Specifically with respect to small property owners, the new law is predicated on the issues noted in the opening section of the ordinance called “Findings” which basically say in Section B that rents are going up causing people to move. However, the town does not collect rental data from small property owners to support this statement. Therefore, the town cannot have tracked this information over the years to back up the assertion that there has been substantial rent increases by small property owners. This statement is speculative and unsupported by empirical evidence.

    2. In an attempt to understand if small property owners had a pattern of unfair rent complaints against them, a request was made to the Town Manager for data from the Landlord Tenant Advisory Committee. Being sought were annual reports or meeting minutes from this group that would provide details on the number of cases received, the property address, landlord name, nature of the complaint, etc. so that the types of complaints filed could be analyzed to determine if there is a pattern of complaint filings by tenants against small property owners. No information or reports were provided from either the Town Manager or the Landlord Tenant Advisory Committee.

    3. When the flawed ordinance was challenged in the courts in 2020, the Council ceded the responsibility to craft and to negotiate this revised rent control ordinance to two special interest groups, who were in an adversarial relationship, rather than an unbiased party. These were commercial property owners – MPOA, and a tenant advocacy organization – TOOM. The Councilors were not involved throughout most of the negotiations. Most importantly, small property owners from the wider community were not represented or involved in either providing input or the crafting of this ordinance. And the initial ordinance exempted small properties from rent control but at the eleventh hour these were included.

    4. The township should have compiled a list of small property owners and provided notice to each owner of the proposed new ordinance so these homeowners could have had a voice in this matter, given that the changes directly affect them. The town had this information but did nothing.

    5. Only 99 out of 565 municipalities in New Jersey have rent control. Of those, it is hard to discern what types of properties are exempt. Six out of seven of the Montclair neighboring towns exclude 2 and 3 family homes from rent control with Clifton being the most beneficial to small property owners with rent control only applying to 7 units and up. Montclair should be in step with towns/cities that have time tested rent control statutes that seem to be working for the towns, tenants and small property owners and exempt small properties too. We should learn from our neighbors.

    6. This new ordinance will negatively affect the property value of small properties. It seems obvious that anyone who wants to buy a multi-family house in the area will opt to purchase a home in any of the six towns neighboring Montclair which do not impose rent control on small properties, if at all. Once rent control is the law, small investment properties will not increase in value, per data from economic studies.

    7. The data shows that rent control can be a disincentive and/or impinge on the financial ability of landlords to keep up with maintenance. A decline in the upkeep of small properties will cause a decline in neighborhood values.

    8. People who bought homes in recent years are particularly concerned with the potential decline in property values as they starting from a very high base as prices have soared in the pandemic era. Their ability to ensure the appropriate rental income to cover costs is affected. Blacks traditionally lack the generational wealth of whites; this rent control ordinance serves to depress housing prices thus affecting generational wealth.

    9. This rent control act hurts tenants in small properties and may cause dislocation of tenants. Small property owners will be incentivized not to renew the leases with existing tenants because owners can increase rent more by emptying the property and then renting to new tenants at market value.

    B. There are many flaws in the ordinance itself. Some of these are:

    1. It seems that this ordinance was intended for corporate landlords; that many of the provisions and requirements were geared for them, but will prove a hardship to small landlords. There does not seem to have been due consideration of how small property owners will face the onerous burden of compliance and the steep costs involved by adherence to these regulations. This ordinance is written for large commercial investors who have the finances and organizational structure to adhere to the terms of the ordinance without issue.

    2. Places in the ordinance indicate that small property owners will have to submit income tax returns to support claims. This tax return information would also be public information This is an invasion of privacy. Such tax returns may include personal bank and other account numbers; private medical information (perhaps a HIPAA violation); charities to which I contribute, etc. The ordinance also requires tax return information should anyone wish to request a hardship waiver. This process may serve as a deterrent to any small landlord requesting a hardship waiver. Large corporate landlords have properties in LLC’s with individual property tax returns by property. Thus, they can easily submit corporate tax information, but small landlords are required to submit their personal, private tax information. These provisions requiring tax returns may not even be legally enforceable as they pertain to small property owners.

    3. The 4% rent increase cap is arbitrary. What analysis was done to arrive at that percentage increase? The 4% rent cap is a number that bears no relation to the current economics of home ownership and has no empirical support. For example, inflation is running at over 8+ percent, fuel costs are rising rapidly, labor shortages are causing contractor costs to go up astronomically, and insurance premiums are surging because they are tied to the high cost to replace a home, $188 million school bond issue is being considered that will add $900 to the average tax bill, etc. A small landlord cannot pass on all these costs to tenants with a 4% rent increase.

    4. The ordinance does have provisions to increase this 4% in the case of demonstrated hardship, capital investment, etc. However, there are fees associated with these applications. These fees are arbitrary. Why does it cost landlords $250 for a capital improvement or vacancy allowance application, but $300 for a hardship application? Why must landlords pay the township any fee at all to privately agree on a lease with a new tenant, something they now do for without frictional costs? The hardship application process, in particular, is arbitrary and unfair to small landlords. It excludes any “attorney’s, expert’s, or engineer’s fees” as legitimate expenses. But if the Rent Control Board decides it needs an outside expert, the landlord is forced to pay for the board’s expert. Another arbitrary exclusion: mortgage interest and principal. For many small landlords, a new roof or boiler means taking out a second mortgage or home equity loan. But the ordinance disallows recouping the cost of the mortgage. The fees associated with hardship and capital improvement relief are punitive for small landlords to absorb.

    5. There is no income test given and rent control will apply across the board. Why should we pass an ordinance that effectively makes small landlords subsidizes tenants who have no problem paying the rents as set by the market? Think about the new Montclarians who see Montclair rents as being eminently affordable in comparison to Brooklyn or NYC. The Council should be researching other ways for directed assistance to those in need of rental support.

    6. Because the ordinance contains a lower rate increase for seniors, 2.5% v. 4%, those senior citizens seeking apartments, say longtime residents who want to downsize from their larger home, will find it hard to find an apartment. If a landlord can choose between equally qualified applicants but can earn higher rents by selecting the younger person, whom will they logically choose? That choice would be perfectly legal. We also understand that having a different rate increase for senior citizens has been shot down again and again when challenged in the court. Why build into the Montclair ordinance a clause that is basically unsupportable and hurts those over 50?

    7. What new level of bureaucracy will be needed to manage this rent control process fairly and successfully? Do we need more highly paid staff on the town payroll? The allotted budget for the new Rent Control official is approximately $125,000 including salary and benefits. More dollars will likely be needed for consultants to develop guides and forms and to support the operations of the Rent Control Board. Will a small landlord be able to navigate this bureaucracy without incurring the cost of an attorney?

    8. If housing affordability is a Montclair value, then it should be a shared cost for the entire community. There are better solutions to the problem of affordability and scarcity of housing for those who need this support. Insist on 20% set aside on new construction so developers build this cost into the price they pay for pre developed assets; implement a tax on the purchase and/or sale of houses to fund a housing trust for needy tenants; add a small fee to property taxes; don’t subsidize those that are not in need; allow accessory dwelling units; have a small entertainment tax; go after any available state and federal funds (instead of a rent control officer have an affordable housing grant writer). Or, more radically, research the effect of eliminating single family zoning and build more housing all over town. Each of these ideas has its challenges but they address the core issue – affordability and scarcity that drive rents.

    9. Discussions with small property owners reveal that most are charging below market rents. However, with the enactment of this ordinance many will now increase the rents by 6% and add the 4% escalation clause to rental renewals. We have been good landlords who trusted our leaders and now feel taken advantage of. The unintended consequence of passage of this ordinance will be an increase in rents for a significant number of formerly below market rents thus disrupting this once stable sector of Montclair affordable housing.

    10. Another unintended consequence of the enactment of this rent control ordinance is that small property owners may now put their homes on the market to capture the full value of their homes in this high priced property market, given the new uncertainties before us. These properties may then be purchased by large investors who indeed will not have the same consideration for faceless tenants that small property owners have where we know and value the families we rent to. Once again, a currently stable sector of the housing market will be disrupted.

    11. Small property owners have a different profile than commercial investors. We know our tenants, value our relationship with them, strive to reduce tenant turnover as it is costly to us, and don’t need onerous rules and regulations to successfully manage our properties for the benefit of both landlord and tenant. In many cases our homes are our major asset that we hope to use as an income source as we age in Montclair. We are not adversaries; on the contrary we have a mutually beneficial relationship with our tenants.

  4. Here we go again. The 2022 budget for the Council’s direct reports increased 14%. The law department alone went up 50%. Yet, for this we get a Rent Control Board function that can’t seem to follow State law on holding public meetings. I know the Council knows we have to notice these meetings. I know the Council knows it can’t just implement the parts of the law as we get our act together. Imagine if the landlords said they don’t have their act together to comply.. but they are working hard to get up to speed?

    And people, don’t hold your breath that a body created by this Council will will hold the RCB accountable to ever published meeting minutes. This Council needs to expand their representation horizon beyond their flat-earth constituency.

    minorchord,
    You know full well there are far more available votes among renters than their are from small unit landlords. What are you asking for?

  5. Thank you for the detailed comment, minorchord. I am in favor of rent control, but have to admit that you make a number of good points.

    I realize Montclair’s rent control measure is flawed, but I do think it’s better than not having any rent control at all. Although rent control does indeed make things harder for some owners of smaller local properties, many of those owners are in better financial shape than many renters who have been hurt by our town’s ever-rising rents. I’m glad those renters are getting somewhat of a break. A number of landlords (smaller or larger) are not as fair as you are.

    In an ideal situation, more smaller property owners would be exempt from the rent control measure while larger newer buildings (several on/near Bloomfield Avenue) with mostly high rents would be covered under the measure. But, as you know, newer buildings — many owned by wealthy developers and such — are not allowed to be rent-controlled under state law. 🙁

  6. Frank, you state “You know full well there are far more available votes among renters than there are from small unit landlords. What are you asking for?”

    With respect to numbers: As you imply, it is all about politicians pandering to voters. I guess it is naive to assume that the Council serves all the people not just voting blocks. There may be more renters in town but typically renters do not vote. Actually, homeowners over 60 are the most reliable voters. Unlike renters, homeowners have a financial stake in the town. Also, many of our renters live in new buildings, not subject to rent control, so they don’t care about rent control because it doesn’t affect them.

    From a cursory analysis, it looks like TOOM has about 250 or so members. The data I reviewed shows that there are about 1225 two, three and four family homes in Montclair. Of these, 440 are properties where the owner doesn’t reside at the property address (non-owner-occupied units) and therefore, about 440 units are subject to rent control. However, of these 440 units, 207 owners live in Montclair and presumably are potential voters. This is not far off the number of TOOM members. So, politicians should think twice about ignoring these homeowners. In addition, I believe about 1600 or so people signed the MPOA petition to get a rent control ordinance on the ballot before this effort was nixed. Presumably, these signatories were against rent control.

    What I am asking for is that the new rent control ordinance be amended to exclude all 2,3 and 4 family homes whether or not these are owner-occupied.

    From a good government perspective, what I wish that the Council had done, before they passed this ordinance to satisfy a voting bloc in an election year, was to have examined the research and data on rent control the overwhelming body of which shows that rent control has detrimental effects on a town specifically with respect to affordable housing.

    Dave: You state “…many of those owners are in better financial shape than many renters who have been hurt by our town’s ever-rising rents.” What data do you have that supports this assertion? I don’t know of data that compares the financial status of small property owners vis-a-vis renters. If the town wants to help renters who are indeed in need of assistance that should be done on a town-wide basis not on the backs of small property owners.

  7. It’s a bad ordinance. They are not going to change it. They can’t even fully implement it. Remember, this is the work of two consecutive Councils. The first one tried to give you guys an unfair advantage and this Council just flipped the deck. And it was for votes. Your way of counting is wrong.

    What you should be doing is becoming a LLC and then getting some basic tax avoidance advice. Then all the LLC should get together and form an association. Then you will have both levers – money & votes.

    Your property has probably appreciated by more than 75% since we did SPark. Remember, the BID said ½ mile adjacent property values would spike almost immediately to more justify the cost? And then the fight over 65 Church St?

    Everyone was spiking development at every turn. The land use authorities were approving stuff left and right…and patting themselves not he back.
    Our public schools were absolutely amazing. Something for everybody. And all the stormwater flooding is definitely from climate change. No way is development the major cause. Yes, probably the same level of comprehensive impact studies you cite.

    And many of your 1,225 landlords were right there supporting the government development agenda. Pro development. And now landlords like you feel like you are getting screwed? Pretty funny. We have been subsidizing crazy, rapid growth and no, no, no – I want the PILOT but not the obligations?

    I signed the petition because it was a horribly conceived piece of crap and was created to get votes. Rent control was necessary because of what we did. We got greedy. Plain, simple avarice. From 1st Ward to the 4th Ward. Not pretty.

    And if there are any folks serious about the equity of our implementation and enforcement, ask yourselves how many of the new construction (PILOT & non-PILOT) has refinanced out of their original deal. Then ask why is this important in who is subject to the law.

  8. Clearly, rent control is the tail on the dog. The after the fact, reactionary, finger in the dike move. Actually, an issue that warrants full mobilization. Climate change might, but we are not big thinkers yet. The Montclair Center Board of Directors, including 2 Town Councilors, cajole their members who are closed at night, to electrify their storefront, to help “activate” a seamless downtown experience. Seriously, no different than telling my neighbor to leave their tv on just so the neighborhood feels safer. And this same Montclair Center Board will again ask our Council to enact a parking meter free holiday for mostly carbon emitting cars to come from other towns. Maybe ask the Montclair Environmental Commission to actually meet and propose some out-of-the-box, climate friendly, alternative subsidies.

    What I am trying to say after too many words is Montclair talks a lot. Go Mountie Blue.

  9. Thank you for the reply, minorchord.

    I don’t have specific statistics on how much better off financially the typical property owner is than the typical renter, but the very fact of owning property puts many landlords in a better monetary situation than many renters. Landlords have plenty of expenses, of course, but rental income is coming in every month; owning property has tax advantages; a line of credit can be taken out on owned property (I did that myself when I was a Montclair homeowner to help pay for my older daughter’s college education); and property can be sold. (Montclair is certainly a “hot” market now.) Renters don’t have those options/benefits.

    By the way, you said to Frank that “typically renters do not vote.” Perhaps a lower percentage of renters than property owners vote, but I’m sure a good number of renters vote. They have a strong stake in our town, including many of them having kids in our schools. I’m now a Montclair renter, and I certainly vote. 🙂

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