CHERRY HILL — Township council has taken a first step toward changing Cherry Hill’s approach to rent control.
Council members last week gave initial approval to a measure that would amend the existing rent-control ordinance. The change, if approved on second reading, would institute “permanent vacancy decontrol,” as opposed to the current “vacancy decontrol.”
Township officials say the move is not intended to abolish rent control, but tenants fear that will happen.
Under the current provision, a landlord can increase the rent to market rate on a unit that became vacant. However, any future increases would fall within the rent-control ordinance.
With the proposed change, future rents on a vacated unit would no longer be subject to rent control and the landlord would be free to adjust the rent annually.
“While considering this amendment, it was important to the township administration that current tenants under rent control remain protected by the rent-control ordinance,” said Erin Gill, Cherry Hill’s director of policy, planning and programs.
“Rent control has been a contentious issue in Cherry Hill for years,” Gill said. “Tenants cite dilapidated building and lack of proper maintenance, while landlords plead for increases to cover the costs to run and properly maintain their buildings.”
Such was the case in April when tenants at the Towers of Windsor Park complex on Chapel Avenue objected to a “hardship” rent increase of 12 percent over the next two years. That boost, which will take effect as current leases expire, won township approval.
Rents at the Towers range from $945 for a studio to more than $2,200 for a three-bedroom apartment, meaning tenants would have to fork over as much as $264 a month with the entire increase.
Cherry Hill attorney Jules Lieberman — representing Windsor Towers owner Morgan Properties of King of Prussia, Pa. — requested the rent increase at a March meeting of the township’s Rent Review Board.
A “hardship” increase is requested by a landlord when an area’s Consumer Price Index falls below a level that would provide a reasonable rate of return on a dwelling, according to the township’s ordinance on rental housing.
“I’ve been here at Windsor for about eight months,” said Owen Black, who has a one-year lease. “I wasn’t expecting an increase so soon. And, yeah, it’s going to affect me. Plus, the Dumpsters in the back of my building bother me. They aren’t emptied very often and the trash is overflowing.
“I’ll be looking for another apartment.”
The Grand Apartments on Route 70 in the Barclay Farm also recently requested a “hardship” increase of 15.5 percent. A municipal hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“We’ll fight that when we get to it,” said Rae Haltzman, a resident of The Grand, one of the township’s biggest complexes.
“As for the amendment, I think it’s a backdoor way for town council to abolish the rent-control board,” said Haltzman. “It won’t happen right away, but it’s like slowly letting the air out. Eventually it will be gone.”
“That may happen at some point,” said the township’s Gill. “But for right now we’re looking for a balance.
“The hope is that landlords will not need or qualify for hardship increases for much longer, since they will be free to adjust rents on decontrolled units without having to come before the Rent Review Board.”
According to Gill, landlords will have to submit a written statement with the township rent review officer, signed by a vacating tenant, certifying that the landlord has not harassed or pressured the tenant into leaving the rental unit.
“The intent of this amendment is that its effects will lead to improved living conditions in many of Cherry Hill’s rent-controlled buildings,” said Gill.
Danni Goldhaber, a 31-year tenant at The Grand, was not concerned with the amendment’s impact.
“Basically, if I don’t move, I’m still under rent control,” said Goldhaber, a media consultant. “That’s a good thing. From a business sense, it makes sense for the landlords. And from a tenant’s point of view, I’m glad (the eventual decontrol of all apartments) is not something that’s going to happen in a couple years.”