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Wayne Tenants Council v. Mayor and Council of Township of Wayne

Decided: June 2, 1981.


Romei, J.J.D.R.C. (temporarily assigned).


Once again, the facial validity of a rent control ordinance is challenged, this time by Wayne Township tenants.

On July 16, 1980 the governing body of Wayne adopted Ordinance 63 of 1980, entitled "AN ORDINANCE TO AMEND CHAPTER 145 (RENT LEVELING) OF THE REVISED ORDINANCES OF THE TOWNSHIP OF WAYNE," which substantially revised the previous rent control ordinance.

Plaintiff Wayne Tenants Council has centered its attack on the ordinance to § 145-4C. (allowable rental increases grounded upon 100% of the increase in the housing component of the Consumer Price Index (C.P.I.)); § 145-11 (vacancy decontrol); § 145-12 (five-year exemption for new housing units) and § 145-15 (time limitation on filing complaints under prior ordinance). Defendants Mayor and Council of the Township of Wayne assert that the enactment of the subject ordinance constitutes the exercise of reasonable legislative judgment. Further, they move for the dismissal of the action because plaintiff failed to file its complaint within the time requirements of R. 4:69-6*fn1 and also on the grounds that the tenants association "lacks standing to challenge the ordinance."

Apartment rents have been regulated in Wayne since May 3, 1972 when Ordinance 22-1272 was enacted. This ordinance, as amended on three separate occasions, was subsequently upheld in Cosden v. Wayne Tp. , 68 N.J. 543 (1975). Thereafter, the ordinance was amended at least six times. Application of the prior ordinance became in time so cumbersome and complicated that the rent leveling board was compelled to adopt a comprehensive set of guidelines establishing rules for interpreting the repealed ordinance.*fn2 The governing body therefore determined

that "it would be in the best interests of the Township to formulate a new rent control ordinance" because the prior ordinance had "become increasingly difficult to administer" and the "formulae employed" difficult to apply.

Preliminarily, it must be decided whether plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed since its action in lieu of prerogative writs was filed about 25 days after the accrual of the right to review. R. 4:69-6(a). The tenant's association contends that the time period should be enlarged, as provided in R. 4:69-6(c), because "To denigrate this right to due process on the basis of a procedural technicality flies in the face of . . . substantial interests. . . ." Exceptions to the time limitation requirement "should be but exceptionally condoned, and only in the most persuasive circumstances." Kent v. Mendham , 111 N.J. Super. 67, 76 (App.Div.1970). Nonetheless, this action does involve "important public rather than private interests which require adjudication or clarification." Brunetti v. New Milford , 68 N.J. 576, 585-587 (1975).

There exists in this case a serious question regarding the association's standing to maintain these proceedings, particularly since plaintiff challenges an ordinance enacted for the benefit of its members. However, the history of rent control in Wayne reveals that much litigation developed in the past over the construction of prior ordinances. It is in the interest of tenants and landlords to clarify immediately the legal status of the substantially revised ordinance. Accordingly, the 45-day limitation period is enlarged.

The tenants first attack is focused upon § 145-4C which provides that "no landlord shall be entitled to request or receive an increase in base rent for a tenant . . . greater than percentage difference in the C.P.I. for the prior . . . year . . . ."*fn3 "Base rent," as defined in § 145-3B, means "the gross monthly rental." "C.P.I.," as defined in § 145-3C, means "the residential rent component of the shelter increment of the housing component of the Consumer Price Index" for the New York, Northeastern New Jersey region.

Plaintiff contends that this particular section of the ordinance is "arbitrary and capricious" and "unreasonable." Specifically, the claim is that the method of calculating allowable rental increases fails to accomplish the stated objectives "to prevent unwarranted and abnormal increases in rents" and "to protect tenants" from "undue impairment of their standard of living during the housing crisis." The tenant's association further asserts that this section "produces accelerated and inflationary rental increases." The use of the housing component of the C.P.I. is also challenged because it takes into account all types of rental property," even though only garden apartments are within the ambit of the Rent Leveling Ordinance." To substantiate these allegations, Wayne Tenants Council adduced uncontradicted testimony to show that allowable rental increases for 1981 will average between $25 to $30 a month compared to allowable average monthly increases of $7 to $10 (inclusive of the tax adjustment) a month under the prior ordinance.*fn4

The applicable standard of review of the challenged ordinance is set forth in Hutton Pk. Gardens v. West ...

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