Montclair property owners group sues town again after rent control negotiations break down

·4 min read

For the past two years, a Montclair landlord group has been fighting against the rent control ordinance passed by the town council in 2020.

Now, they are fighting the rent freeze the council enacted at the beginning of the pandemic, and extended several times.

On Monday, the Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) filed a supplemental complaint in Newark Superior Court asking Judge Jeffrey Beacham to force the council to end the freeze, claiming it violates New Jersey’s Civil Rights Act, which prohibits "takings without just compensation."

The group claims in the brief that the rent freeze is "retaliation" for the group's attempts to invalidate the ordinance and put the rent control issue to the voters, where it is unlikely to pass.

Montclair rent control advocates outside the Trenton courthouse on Sept. 21, 2021. From left, Ira Karasick, William Scott and Deidre Molloy, co-chairs of the Montclair Housing Commission, and Toni Martin of a Montclair tenants rights group.
Montclair rent control advocates outside the Trenton courthouse on Sept. 21, 2021. From left, Ira Karasick, William Scott and Deidre Molloy, co-chairs of the Montclair Housing Commission, and Toni Martin of a Montclair tenants rights group.

The town's pandemic rent freeze must be reauthorized every three months; the most recent extension expires March 31.

The landlord group is also asking that the township be required to reimburse their legal fees accrued fighting the ordinance, which they estimate at more than $250,000, and said it will make a similar motion for fees related to the rent freeze litigation.

Long, bitter fight

The passage of the town's first rent control ordinance in April 2020 launched a long and bitter game of legal ping pong between town leaders and tenants-rights advocates and the MPOA, headed by Ron Simoncini of the Rutherford-based public relations firm Axiom Communications.

Simoncini has led efforts to quash rent control measures in dozens of New Jersey cities, including in Montclair in 1995 and 2007.

The ordinance was legally blocked by the group immediately after it was approved in April 2020 and has never gone into effect.

The landlords won another legal victory in January 2021, when Beacham ruled that they had collected enough approved online voter signatures to put the matter to a ballot question.

Recently, Montclair landlords Steven Plofker and David Genova began talks with tenant advocates Mitch Kahn and Joan Pransky to work out modifications to the ordinance, but negotiations broke down last month.

Plofker is married to cosmetics magnate Bobbi Brown, who runs the town's George Hotel, the event space 18 Label Studios, and an outlet for her new cosmetics line, Jones Road.

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The rent control ordinance limits annual rent increases to 4.25% (2.5% for seniors) and caps increases after a tenant vacates a unit at 10%. The law applies only to properties with four or more units built before 2008.

Common ground

During negotiations, the parties had made progress, Simoncini said. (Kahn would not comment on specifics of the talks.) They'd agreed to the slightly lower allowable rent increase of 4%; expanded the measure to include two- and three- family units, and eliminated the 10% limit on rent increases for vacated apartments, he said. Vacancy increases would not be limited in amount, but could only be made once every five years.

The sticking points for the landlord group, Simoncini said, include the 2.5% increase for seniors, which he calls "illegal price discrimination" and making the ordinance retroactive to 2020.

Despite the breakdown in talks, some remain hopeful that an agreement can still be reached and a modified version of the ordinance adopted by the council.

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Councilor Peter Yacobellis, a former rent control and stabilization officer in New York City who was not on the council when it adopted the statue, said he'd like to see rent control enacted in Montclair, with some changes.

First, it should apply to two and three family units, he said.

"If you're going to have rent control with the intention of preventing egregious rent increases, then have it on all units that we're able to apply it to (state law exempts new construction)," he wrote in an email. "With the current ordinance, only about 30-35% of rental units would have rent control. We shouldn't pick winners or losers based on the size of an apartment and its year of construction."

He recommends removing the vacancy decontrol provision, so landlords are encouraged to improve units, and he'd like to see a a rent leveling board set yearly rates based on the Consumer Price Index and other economic factors.

Yacobellis remains convinced that "compromise is in reach."

"Most people want what is best for this community, and protecting our diversity and affordability is at the top of that list for most," he said. "Let's hope smart policy can prevail."

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

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Twitter: @TheWriteJulia

This article originally appeared on Montclair NJ property owners fighting rent control sue town again