Lately I’m sure you’ve read about lawsuits and court battles regarding the Rent Control Ordinance that the previous Council passed in spring of 2020. We’ve had our fair share of debates as a community lately and I’m hoping we can avoid another one by finding common ground with all interested parties on how we might stabilize rent in Montclair to protect affordability and by extension the diversity that we cherish. I’ve never been happy with the rent control law passed by the last Council because it did not cover most rental units in Montclair, had a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy and has since resulted in expensive and divisive fights where I think compromise was always possible.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve been engaging in dialogue with all parties — property owners, the property owners association, tenants, tenant organizations and my colleagues to try to offer my ideas in hopes that we could avoid a ballot referendum. As I’m learning in politics and I find disheartening, too often who gets credit becomes more important than doing the right thing. But, having spent so much time on this and as a former Rent Control/Stabilization Officer in New York City who gets the policy and in particular the application of the policy, and having talked to many involved parties, I’m convinced that compromise is in reach and a divisive ballot referendum can be avoided.
Since running, I’ve been raising a red flag that two and three family units — where so many Montclair families live, were left out and should not have been and that if this current Council has the opportunity to vote on rent control, that the votes would be there to expand it. I also think if you do that we also have to be mindful to avoid raising property taxes by more than whatever rent cap is established.
After all, this should be about preventing bad behavior by a few bad actors and stabilizing rents across the board — not punishing people who do the right thing. And let’s also never forget that while rent control is important, it is never a substitute for an affordable housing strategy and the necessary investment there.
So How did we get here?
For most rentals in town, rent has been frozen since the onset of the pandemic in spring of 2020. Around the same time, the previous Council passed a rent control ordinance to place a rent increase cap of 4.25% on rentals in structures with four or more units built before 2008. There was fierce debate between former Councilor Renee Baskerville who led the charge on this for many years and then-Councilor Sean Spiller (both competing to be Mayor at the time) on how best to approach this issue. Councilor Baskerville sought a 3.5% cap, which I think should have been the rate if we opted for a fixed vs. variable rate (which I favor). Ultimately then-Councilor Spiller’s approach prevailed. At the time, I attended the Council Meeting and spoke out against some elements of the law that I didn’t like and also wrote about others in a Q & A with Montclair Local and talked about it in my Town Hall earlier this year. I thought for something so important, that the process was too political and too rushed and the result was something that has now been tied up in court for 19 months.
What Would I Change in the Current Law?
- The vast majority of rental units in Montclair would not be covered under the current law as it leaves out single homes, two and three family dwellings and new construction since 2008 (think Valley & Bloom, Seymour Street, the Vestry). I’ve only done very rough math on this but when you factor out new construction, single family homes, two family homes and three family structures, you leave only about 30-35% of rental units in Montclair that would have rent control — at most. I don’t think its healthy for the overall economics of the town to institute price controls on a minority of rental stock. If I own 6 units and 2 are rent controlled and 4 are not and I have to keep myself whole, I’m probably going to put the burden on the 4 non controlled units. I don’t think that’s fair to those renters. 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).
- A Rent Cap Ideally Should Be Variable, Not Fixed. The pending law sets a rent cap at 4.25% for regular tenants and 2.5% for seniors. Instead of having somewhat arbitrary numbers, I’d rather have a rent leveling board set the rates each year based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and other economic factors like a pandemic or recession or inflation. This is what New York City does for their 900,000 units. As just one example, we would not have wanted a 4.25% increase in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. You can also have a cap for the Board to operate under, say 4%. Why not have an independent Board set rates based on what’s happening economically that year? Maybe the property tax rate increase can be a contributing factor to that decision. But if fixed is what we can compromise on then so be it, as long as it covers more units and we get more people protection from egregious increases. I will support that.
- Tenants Should Get A Discount for Signing a Multi-Year Lease. The pending law does not contemplate something that is very popular in New York City: A multi-year discount on your rent increase. So if a one year lease renewal would include a 3% increase, the landlord could offer the tenant a two year lease with a 2% increase instead in exchange for that commitment to lease the property for 24 months. The tenant gets a discount on their rent for staying longer and the owner is willing to give it because it means less turnover and less possible vacancy time for the unit. These rates could be set by a rent leveling board within a cap.
- The Law Doesn’t Offer Succession Rights to Children. Not everyone’s family home is an owned home. 37 of my 42 years of life were spent in rentals, both rent controlled and market units. The place I consider home — a single family house in New Hyde Park, NY was a rental. When my parents decided to retire and move to Delaware because of high taxes, my siblings and I had no legal opportunity to keep the home we grew up in. In New York City, family members who live in the residence for at least two years prior to the unit being vacated by the primary renter, can be made tenants under the current rent rate subject only to regular rent increases approved by the Board. I would imagine there are families in Montclair with similar circumstances who might benefit from a protection like this. At the very least, I think single family rentals should be subject to a cap on rent increases too.
- Simplifying the Law. In addition to the significant structural changes I’ve proposed above, there are a lot of small things throughout the law that I would like to cleanup/streamline to make implementation smoother and give tenants and landlords an easier experience when working with our government on these issues. This is very in the weeds, but this is what I’ve shared with all parties to consider:
- 257-4 Rent Stabilization Board
- There is no meeting cadence prescribed. I think we should say a minimum of 12 times per year.
- The Board should be seven vs. five to ensure stronger opinions with more input and to spread the work out more
- If seven, I would propose the Mayor and Council each appoint one member vs. Resolutions to appoint, that way we always make sure each ward Councilor can have a directly appointed voice on the body
- Quorum would then be five vs. three, which is a healthier number for democratic processes
- Two alternates should be mandatory. Therefore the language should say shall vs. may.
- 257-5 Board Staff
- Rent Regulation Officer should be appointed by the Council vs. Manager and perhaps work directly for the Township Clerk, with that office being the one that maintains and produces records
- A budget should be established for record keeping, policy development, form creation
- 257-6 Professional Services
- A budget should be established for professional services associated with developing policies, forms and processes
- 257-9 Permitted rental increases
- Rather than a fixed 4.25% rate and 2.5% rate for seniors, I would rather see a variable rate determined by the Rent Control Board tied to the Consumer Price Index within a range we would set. At the least, I’d like to see a lower rate in general, perhaps 3.75 or 4%.
- A multi-year discount (2 years) should be offered and also be set within the rate schedule
- Landlords should have to provide 24 months of rental and expense data vs. 36
- Rules and Regulations developed by the Rent Control Board for Landlords and Tenants should be approved by Council since they would have the force of law.
- 257-9.D.8.B should specify Municipal Clerk vs. “municipal administrative officer”
- 257-11 Vacancy Allowance
- You have to allow property owners to update rental units every so often and capture that investment back in rent, to an extent. Without this, you end up with two classes of rentals in town — the neglected and the improved. I don’t want any Montclair tenants living in neglected units. This can and must be fixed to be more realistic.
- 257-13 Registration Requirement
- We have to sharpen up this section with clear protocols for someone receiving information that contains personal information, rent rates etc… It should be by OPRA or a form should be completed and then approved by the Rent Control Officer before the information is released.
I know that conversations are on-going and I really do believe that compromise is in reach. After a divisive school board vote and sparring over library funding and much more, we need to come together and remember that being neighbors is more important than getting everything we want. We all have to live here together and I know in the seat of my soul that most people want what is best for this community and protecting our diversity and affordability is at the top of that list for most. Let’s hope smart policy can prevail.