Occupancy Law Amendment to be Drafted
Subcommittee to be formed as many Parsippany families are set to lose their homes.
The occupancy ordinance wasn't on the agenda for Tuesday night's Parsippany Township Council meeting. But that law—and the families set to lose their homes because of it—became the business session's central focus.
The council decided Tuesday night to form a subcommittee to draft an occupancy ordinance amendment the members will accept. Council President Brian Stanton refused all requests to volunteer, saying he would hand pick who will serve on the panel.
The issue arose when Councilman James Vigilante sneaked in a question just before Stanton was about to adjourn what had been a fairly routine meeting.
Vigilante noted that at least four Parsippany families—including one with a 6-month-old baby—are about to be evicted because under Par-Troy housing law, three people cannot live in a one-bedroom apartment.
The councilman said that while he supports strong enforcement of true stacking infractions, he doesn't believe young families were the intended targets of the law.
"Is there anything legally that we can do to suspend the ordinance and protect these families?" Vigilante asked Township Attorney John Inglesino.
"The ordinance is the law of this municipality," the lawyer said. "We're duty-bound to enforce the law."
Inglesino reminded Vigilante that just weeks ago an ordinance amendment proposal backed by Mayor James Barberio appeared before the council. Under that plan, families in violation of the ordinance could attempt to obtain a waiver. That proposal was just shy of its second reading when the Town Council opted to let it die after some residents complained about what they saw as a weakening of the anti-stacking law.
"The only way to make the law effective would be to change it," Inglesino said. "What we proposed was admittedly not a perfect solution, but it was one that under the circumstances was most appropriate as a potential remedy for some of the families that are being displaced."
The attorney said several factors make it appropriate to help the families threatened with eviction.
One was the notion that these families "perhaps were not the ones intended to be included among the people who would be displaced by the ordinance."
The second, he said, was the recession.
"Since the last ordinance was passed, in 2006, we've had a very significant downturn in the economy, 9.8 percent unemployment in the state... That's created a lot of financial pressure for families," he said.
Inglesino defended the mayor's plan, which he said was only for an interim period, saying it was "the only legal mechanism that I think works. That proposal would provide for a waiver solution that would be used only until "stakeholders" could come up with a permanent plan for protecting families while stopping stackiing.
He then reminded the council members again that they were the ones who put a stop to an ordinance change that would have protected families.
Absent that, he said, the law that exists must be enforced.
Stanton mentioned that the Dartmouth Village family with a disabled child threatened with eviction had been allowed to remain in their one-bedroom apartment until their lease expires in April.
Now a non-renewal rather than an eviction, the family in question loses the only protection apartment dwellers have under Parsippany law: the equivalent of six months' rent in relocation assistance payments paid by the landlord (or by the township, if the landlord does not pay by five days before the eviction date).
The only other possible action a family in this situation could take would be to file suit under the Fair Housing Act, which lists family status as a class that cannot be discriminated against in housing and public accomodations.
Stanton asked whether the law could be changed to make all these cases non-renewals so that the families could keep their homes at least until the lease end.
Inglesino said that would be difficult to make happen and a highly complicated proposition.
"I don't know what, but something's got to be done for these families," Stanton asserted.
Vigilante offered his own idea.
"The law is the law, and I don't encourage anyone to break the law," he said, referring to families facing eviction and adding that he advocates enforcing the law. "But do we have to enforce the law this very minute?"
The councilman then explained that he supported killing the amendment proposal because it made the town too vulnerable to abuses of the waiver system and possible litigation.
Inglesino pointed out that he hadn't heard of any threats on the horizon.
Councilman Paul Carifi Jr. noted that stacking is a real problem that merits that council's hard line approach.
"I know in talking to police, fire and EMS in town, we do still have stacking issues where there's four or five adults living in one-bedroom apartments, that's the thing that needs to be addressed," he said. "Somebody with a 6-month-old baby, you give them until the end of the lease to look for somewhere else to go. Personally, I wouldn't have a problem with that."
Carifi said the waiver plan would "open a can of worms" and add to the problem of residential overcrowding.
Councilman Michael dePierro also agreed that issuing waivers was a bad idea.
"You can't consider every variable," he said. "We need a solution, but waivers aren't it."
The discussion moved into the arena of age limits.
Councilman Vincent Ferrara asked the township attorney whether it would be possible to institute an age exemption for children, as was suggested at last week's council meeting by Jonathan Nelson.
The question got lost in a back-and-forth between council members that covered different age limits, from 2 to 16.
Stanton reminded those assembled that there was not much time to engage in discussions on the matter, as some prospective evictees have already received their 30 days' notice to vacate.