Renters say landlord is forcing them out; Morristown councilman wants to revisit rent controls

GENTRIFYING? Residents at the Alister apartments in Morristown say so. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GENTRIFYING? Residents at the Alister apartments in Morristown say so. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Longtime residents of a Morristown apartment complex say a new landlord is shoving them out to attract higher-paying tenants, prompting a councilman to urge the town to consider reviving stricter rent controls.

Over the last month, tenants from the Alister apartments — known for decades as Jacob Ford Village–have complained to the council of eviction notices, fees for improvements they don’t want, frequent interruptions of water service, fallen tree limbs littering the property, tight parking, a parking lot “sinkhole,” and $250 penalties for late rent payments.

“To me, it’s just wrong…they’re tearing families apart,” tenant Kevin Waldron said last week.

Rich Murphy, a representative of Mill Creek Residential, which acquired the complex last year, told the council he would investigate these complaints. Eviction notices are in response to overcrowding that violates town ordinances, he said.

“We’re in a no-win situation here. Because either we enforce the law, or we’re a slumlord that allows overcrowding….the unfortunate thing is, when we purchased this property, there were some overcrowding issues that we had to deal with. They create safety issues,” Murphy said.

Tenants at Alister say it’s a money grab.

Many of them are grandfathered under old rent controls that tied incremental rent increases to the Consumer Price Index. But under a vacancy decontrol law pushed by landlords and approved by voters in 2005, landlords can charge market rates to new tenants when a rent-controlled apartment becomes vacant.

Mill Creek is seeking to double rents for some of these small units, which date to the 1950s.

“Rent is like $2200 to $2600, and I don’t bring that kind of money home,” said Azhar Quereshi, who pays $1,300 a month for the apartment where he has lived since 1999.

Quereshi is a training instructor for a pharma company, with children ages 5, 4 and 1. He’s fighting a February eviction notice. 

“Although I’ve been trying to find a place, the rent is horrendous. It is too much out there,” he told the council. “With three kids, I don’t know what to do.”

Councilman Robert Iannaccone, right, speaks at February 2018 meeting, while Councilman Stefan Armington listens. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Councilman Robert Iannaccone, right, speaks at February 2018 meeting, while Councilman Stefan Armington listens. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes the Washington Avenue apartments, said the situation underscores a housing problem facing Morristown and the state.

To its credit, Iannaccone said, the town has required builders of luxury apartments–including Mill Creek, developer of the Modera 44 and Modera 55 complexes–to set aside units for low-income people. 

But he said Morristown’s diversity is threatened by a paucity of affordable housing for working-class families earning $40,000 to $80,000.

“It’s getting harder and harder for them to live, not just in Morristown, but anywhere,” said Iannaccone, a lawyer and hospital chief executive who rented in town for 13 years early in his career.

About 20 families at Alister have been told to leave, many by July, right after the school year ends, according to Iannaccone.

Mill Creek wants to charge another 100 or so tenants monthly surcharges of $35 to $54 for installation of in-wall air conditioning, said town Rent Leveling Manager Wayne Cresta. 

“I don’t think we should be charged for air conditioning. I already have three [window] air conditioners in my apartment,” said Sandra Dungee, a tenant for nearly 20 years.

Senior citizen Barbara Murphy (no relation to Rich Murphy), a tenant for 32 years, said she’s concerned about her ability to pay this surcharge, scheduled to extend for a decade. 

Mill Creek is “putting in washers and dryers and upgrading bathrooms and kitchens to qualify for vacancy decontrol. And they are advertising the units for $2600 and $2700… I’ll let you draw your own conclusion,” town Administrator Jillian Barrick told the council.

Barrick said Mayor Tim Dougherty’s administration has been pursuing solutions with Mill Creek since the fall.

Longtime tenant Bernadette Dennis said she must store gallons of water because of repeated service shutoffs. Downed branches from recent storms pose a hazard, she said, and the crowded parking lot has a sinkhole big enough “to swallow a small child.”

Dennis said Mill Creek is trying to prop up a shaky investment at the expense of a close-knit group of residents, whose apartments overlook the Ford Mansion, war-time home of Gen. George Washington, in the Morristown National Historical Park.

“It’s a family, it’s a community, we’re all working class people. This isn’t a Modera. This isn’t the place to make their money. You can’t put in a high-rise, it’s an historic district, a family district. They made a bad purchase,” Dennis told the council.

REVAMP VACANCY DECONTROL?

Innaccone wants the town to consider amending its occupancy regulations, to ease restrictions affecting families at Alister. He has asked if evictions can be postponed while this review unfolds.

He also favors converting the town’s volunteer rent leveling board–which has not met in eight years–to a tenancy board with broader powers to advocate for renters and mediate disputes with landlords.

And he suggests vacancy decontrol should grant only limited rent increases, as is done in Newark and elsewhere.

Iannaccone will head a council subcommittee that includes Council Members Hiliari Davis and David Silva to explore these issues.

Two-bedroom apartments at Alister average about 700 square feet, with second bedrooms only measuring about 80 square feet, Barrick said. Town regulations say bedrooms housing two persons must have at least 120 square feet of space.

“You want to make sure you don’t have five people living in a closet,” she explained.

Mill Creek's Rich Murphy in Modera 44 community room. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mill Creek’s Rich Murphy in Modera 44 community room, December 2014. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The council voted in December to ease the rules so two children up to age 13 may share the smaller sized bedrooms.  However, adult children are doubling up with their parents in some apartments, and they are bringing extra cars to Alister.

Cresta, the town’s rent leveling manager, said his initial review indicates there may be “some substance” to Alister residents’ complaints of harassment, the only harassment complaints he has seen against major landlords in town.

“At the very least, it’s mean-spirited,” said Cresta, who intends to hold an administrative hearing on the complaints. Either side can appeal his decision to the rent board, which he said has not met in eight years.

Gen. George Washington keeps a watchful eye on the Alister apartments (formerly Jacob Ford Village) in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Gen. George Washington keeps a watchful eye on the Alister apartments (formerly Jacob Ford Village) in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Morristown’s vacancy decontrol law covers about 2,500 apartments constructed before 1981.

To impose surcharges, landlords must demonstrate they are investing in their properties. Before proceeding with the air conditioner upgrades, Mill Creek must submit to town inspections of the apartments, which cost $125 per unit, Cresta said.

Rich Murphy said Mill Creek has submitted plans for expanded parking at Alister to the town planning board.  Beyond that, he made no promises to tenants who packed the council chambers.

“The main reason for me getting up here tonight, was to say you didn’t get up here to just blow off smoke,” he told them.

“At least somebody was here to listen. I’m not saying all the answers that we get to you in coming months will make you real happy in every instance.  But at least we took notes and will try to address it.”

The Alister apartments in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, April 12, 2018
The Alister apartments in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, April 12, 2018

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Who is Gavin R. Putland and why is the very same article appearing in the Palo Alto, California, “Daily Post?”

  2. As a tenant, this year’s contract was over 60 pages.
    I work with a lawyer and she’s dealt with contracts all her life, it’s like signing a contract for your soul. It’s obvious that their trying to squeeze every penny and drive the people that are here already to “renovate” and milk the newcomers.

  3. What’s better than rent controls? A tax on vacant lots and unoccupied housing. While rent controls make it less attractive to supply housing, a vacancy tax makes it less attractive NOT to supply housing! A vacancy tax of $X/week makes it $X/week more expensive NOT to get a tenant, and thereby REDUCES, by $X/week, the minimum rent that will persuade the owner to accept a tenant.

    If NEW buildings are exempted from rent control in an effort to encourage construction, the stock of rent-controlled housing becomes an ever-shrinking fraction of the total housing supply — unless the exemption is only for a limited time, in which case there is less incentive to build! A vacancy tax avoids such conflicts; it unequivocally tends to increase the effective supply of housing and therefore to reduce rents.

    Similarly, a vacancy tax on commercial property would reduce rents for job-creating enterprises.

    With a sufficiently heavy vacancy tax, evictions due to foreclosures would be consigned to the past, because the foreclosing bankers, in order to avoid the tax, would want to retain the current tenants or former owner-occupants as continuing tenants. Of course the existing stock of empty foreclosed homes would be immediately made available for rent, as it should have been all along — not just drip-fed to buyers over a period of years.

    Under a vacancy tax, squatters would not count as occupants, because they don’t officially exist. So the squatters (and the nuisances they cause) would be displaced by lawful tenants. The owners would get rent, the tenants would get accommodation, and the neighbors would get peace.

    A vacancy tax would be GOOD FOR REALTORS — who would get more rental-management fees for properties coming onto the rental market, plus commissions from any owners who decided to sell vacant properties.

    And the political trump card… Avoidance of the vacancy tax would initiate economic activity, which would expand the bases of other taxes, allowing their rates to be reduced, so that the rest of the city/state/country gets a tax cut!

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