Judges side with Montclair landlords, sending rent control ordinance to a referendum

·3 min read

Opponents of Montclair's rent control statute have won a decisive round in a game of legal pingpong that started after the Township Council approved its first-ever rent control ordinance in April 2020.

In a decision handed down Tuesday morning, an appeals panel in Trenton sided with a landlord group that argued that the Montclair town clerk improperly rejected signatures on a petition. The landlords' petition sought to force the ordinance to be put to a referendum.

Tuesday's decision essentially invalidates the ordinance unless it is approved by a majority of Montclair voters. Though the town has put a rent control measure on the ballot several times in the past, it has never passed.

The ordinance limits annual rent increases to 4.25%, or 2.5% for seniors; two- and three-family homes are exempt. Per state statute, apartments in new buildings with an affordable housing component are exempt for 30 years.

Rent control advocates AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin, and council member Bob Russo, in downtown Montclair after a judge ordered a new rent control ordinance to take effect immediately. January 16, 2021.
Rent control advocates AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin, and council member Bob Russo, in downtown Montclair after a judge ordered a new rent control ordinance to take effect immediately. January 16, 2021.

Toni Martin, co-founder of the Tenants Organization of Montclair, said in an emailed comment, "This very long, very twisty-turny journey will go on a little longer.

"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."

Ron Simoncini, director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, said in an email, “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."

Simoncini, who runs the Rutherford-based public relations firm Axiom Communications, has led efforts to quash rent control measures in dozens of New Jersey cities, including two in Montclair, in 1995 and 2007. The MPOA is made up of owners of 1,175 Montclair apartments, including Montclair landlords Steven Plofker, David Genova and Suzanne Miller. Plofker is married to cosmetics magnate Bobbi Brown, who owns The George Hotel in town.

Long court battle

Upon its passage in April 2020, the rent control ordinance was immediately contested in court by the Montclair Property Owners Association, which successfully sought an injunction that prevented it from going into effect.

The stay was granted during the pandemic state of emergency to give property owners time to gather petition signatures for a ballot question; the judge agreed they were hampered in their collection efforts by the COVID state of emergency.

In September 2020, while the ordinance was on hold, the landlord group scored another legal victory when Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham ruled that town officials had to share residents' cellphone numbers and email addresses so the group could solicit online signatures for a petition to bring it to a voter referendum.

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They were also granted the right to conduct an online petition, the first in the state.

The tenants' group, however, objected to what it called misleading tactics by the property owners in obtaining signatures.

In January 2021, rent control advocates thought the battle was won when Beacham ruled that the number of approved petition signatures the landlord group submitted to Montclair's township clerk was insufficient and that the rent control ordinance must go into effect.

But a few weeks later, he reversed himself, ordering the clerk to certify a landlord petition to put the township's new rent control ordinance to a voter referendum this spring.

The appellate ruling this week supported the landlord group's contention that the Montclair clerk "unreasonably" rejected online petition signatures that did not match voting records.

It appeared designed to set precedent for gathering online signatures.

"Any cynical governmental body can reject any petition on the basis that they don't like the way an online signature looks," the appellate ruling said. It said the clerk should have attempted to "cure" the signatures in question by contacting the voters themselves.

Julia Martin is the 2021 recipient of the New Jersey Society for Professional Journalists' David Carr award for her coverage of Montclair for NorthJersey.com.

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Email: jmartin@gannettnj.com

Twitter: @TheWriteJulia

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Montclair rent control law must go to voters, panel rules

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