By ERIN ROLL
Montclair officials enacted a rent freeze last year to protect tenants during the economic downturn due to COVID-19. Now, a Landlord-Tenant Housing Advisory Committee official says that while some landlords have violated the ordinance, some tenants have filed false claims about landlords concerning the freeze.
In the last two weeks, at least three tenants were found to have exaggerated or falsified information about their landlords being in violation, said Deirdre Malloy, chair of the advisory committee.
Landlords and tenants alike have a responsibility to present correct information in a landlord-tenant dispute, Malloy said. The committee, which has no legal power, works with landlords and tenants to mediate disputes.
“At least three tenants either misconstrued the lease terms and landlord’s rights due to the expiration of the freeze on increases by Dec. 31, or insisted the landlord was somehow violating the ordinance by increasing rents for Jan. 1,” Malloy said.
“Which in fact to the contrary the landlords were operating accurately to impose increases. Since the ordinance moratorium extension to March 31, 2021, those landlords have made appropriate adjustments.”
Malloy said that since the rent freeze took effect this spring, at least 12 landlords have been confirmed to be in violation.
“In most cases the landlord acquiesced,” she said. “Others were mediated, which may have included other issues we discussed. Some mediations were not favorable for renters, others were favorable for landlords depending on the laws in play.”
At the Jan. 5 Township Council meeting, Malloy said several tenants filed reports against landlords that, upon review, were found to be exaggerated.
“It is important for all renters to know that landlords have legal rights,” Malloy said, adding that the advisory committee will not support harassment or retaliation either by a tenant against a landlord or vice-versa.
If either a landlord or a tenant presents inaccurate information, she said, the committee reserves the right to refuse assistance.
Montclair’s rent-freeze ordinance was passed on May 19, made retroactive to May 1 and was set to expire on July 31. The council later extended it to Dec. 31. On Jan. 5, the council extended it again, until March 21.
The moratorium forbids any increase in rent or any other charges, such as pet or parking fees, with exceptions for the following types of property:
- • Rental units in properties that are owner-occupied with no more than one additional rental unit.
- • Rental units in properties exempt from local rent regulation by state or federal law. State law enacted in 2008 states that local rent-control laws cannot apply to multiple-unit dwellings constructed after the effective date of that law, for 30 years following completion of construction.
- • Rental units in which the rent is determined as a function of household income.
- • Rental units in hotels.
In March, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a moratorium on all evictions in the state for the duration of the public health emergency.
Township Attorney Ira Karasick said that on occasion, when landlords haven’t been aware of the rent freeze, the township was able to provide a certified copy of the ordinance. This is especially useful if the tenant ends up having to go to court over a rent dispute, he said.
Housing Commission Chairman William Scott suggested that the township do mailings or public service campaigns to make landlords and tenants aware of the freeze.
Ahava Felicidad, the co-chair of the Tenants Organization of Montclair (TOOM), said landlords are responsible for keeping informed of what rules and regulations are in effect, and that they should be aware of the rent freeze. “It’s a part of being an owner,” she said.
TOOM assists renters on advocating for themselves in negotiations with landlords, including providing advice and resources on lease and rents, and making sure that landlords perform all needed repairs and maintenance.
But Toni Martin, also of TOOM, said that public information needs to step up.