A new maximum occupancy ordinance proposal won three yes votes and ultimate passage at the Feb. 12 Township Council meeting.
The news ends a process that began last year after tenants in Parsippany garden apartments found themselves served with eviction notices—and some say, callous and cruel treatment from housing staff—for the crime, the residents said, of having babies, which put them in violation of the maximum occupancy ordinance.
Mayor James Barberio's administration put forth a proposed amendment to the housing law that would allow waivers to protect such families. The Town Council refused to consider the measure last August.
"This is something that maybe we should not do," Councilman Michael dePierro said at the time the legislation was pulled from consideration. "When you create an ordinance to help one family or one small group of people, but your ordinance affects the whole town, usually that's a wrong decision."
The councilman said he was convinced by resident concerns that allowing waivers would create opportunities for people to abuse the system.
The council opted to form a working group including council members and town representatives to investigate ways to protect families while protecting the town from "stacking," the illegal overcrowding of residences. A new proposed ordinance was the fruit of their labors, according to Township Attorney John Inglesino.
The lawyer recounted some of the changed items in the new proposed anti-stacking law:
- clarification language strengthening enforcement
- a new limit that guests may not occupy a residence, continuously or intermittently, for more than two months in any 12-month period
- a provision for waivers.
The issue of waivers is what led the Township Council to pass on a similar attempt to amend the occupancy law last year.
Under the new proposal, waivers could be granted to tenants who have resided continuously in their rental apartment or home since 2006, when the law was last amended. There is a mechanism for landlords to object, and final approval is the sole dominion of Planning, Zoning and Construction Director Jennifer Collins.
Earlier drafts of the ordinance gave that discretion to Housing Director Rena Plaxe, who has been a controversial figure throughout the occupancy law debate. She was mentioned numerous times as the source of cruel treatment and insensitivity by some residents who received eviction notices in 2012. The Barberio administration has remained silent on the issue of Plaxe's job performance and her alleged mistreatment of some apartment tenants.
The ordinance text sets forth an application process for waivers that considers what it calls relevant facts:
- Whether the owner of the subject dwelling unit submitted a written objection regarding the application and, if so, the grounds for the objection;
- Whether the applicant has occupied the subject dwelling unit continuously since December 18, 2006;
- The number of adults and minor children occupying the subject dwelling unit;
- The number of sleeping rooms in the subject dwelling unit;
- The number and size of food preparation areas and bathrooms or water closet compartments in the subject dwelling unit;
- The number of vehicles owned or used by the occupants of the subject dwelling unit;
- Any positive or negative impacts on health, safety, and welfare of the occupants of the subject dwelling unit, and any occupants of surrounding dwelling units.
The length of the waiver is for a term not exceeding the shorter of the remainder of the lease term, or one year, Inglesino said.
Councilman Michael dePierro, who opposed waivers a year ago, said the township must consider the needs of young families. He presented the example of an expectant couple that suddenly finds they are expecting not one baby, but twins. The process would allow them to stay in their apartment until a two-bedroom unit becomes available.
"I think we've made this more humane," he said, adding that there is plenty of oversight built in to the system.
DePierro pointed to a case where a family received an eviction notice supposedly issued because of a pregnancy, but actually about the husband's illegal side business repairing vehicles in the apartment complex parking lot.
"This law would prevent this case [from getting a waiver]," the counciman explained.
During public comment, resident Pat Petaccia said she had reservations bout allowing waivers. She said issuing a waiver for a young family, but not for other reasons, such as economic times.
"Times are tight for everybody," she said. "This is going to affect others, in terms of the water used and all, and eventually it's going to cost [the taxpayers]."
In answer to resident questions, Inglesino explained that the waivers can not be extended, however, the law would allow residents to reapply when the original waiver expires, following the stated process, and being judged on its new merits. He added that multiple names on a lease would not translate to multiple waivers for each tenant.
"We do not expect multitudes of requests," the town attorney said. "We do not expect a windfall of people requesting waivers."
And he said what requests do appear will be filtered first by the landlord, whom he expected to be "judicious," and then by Jennifer Collins.
Resident Bob Venezia complained that the new ordinance will lead to delaying tactics by apartment tenants in violation of the occupancy limit, adding that he expects to see waiver requests for every tenant found to be in violation.
"What do they have to lose?" he said, adding that even if the waiver is denied, the errant tenants can still avoid eviction for at least 60 days.
Venezia said the only ordinance change needed was to add a clause to the law excluding natural-born and adopted children under the age of two from being considered as legal occupants.
Inglesino stated that the age restriction would be illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act.
Resident Roy Messmer reminded the council members of their campaign promises to stand against stacking. He also expressed disappointment that no landlords or property managers were present for the council's proceedings.
The roll call vote began with Councilman Paul Carifi Jr., a vocal anti-stacking advocate. He stated that he agreed with Petaccia and Venezia's stance against waivers.
"I would not want to see a couple with a newborn child evicted from their apartment," he said, "but obviously, people know when they're pregnant."
Carifi said that when news of a forthcoming birth arrives a couple should make arrangements to get on a list for a two-bedroom apartment at that time in order to qualify for a waiver. Beyond that, he said waivers should not be given for any other reason and would only set a bad precedent for the town.
"I don't think this strengthens the ordinance at all, so I vote no," he said.
Councilman DePierro and Vice President Vincent Ferrara voted yes.
Councilman Jonathan Nelson carefully considered his words regarding the Housing Director, never mentioning Rena Plaxe by name.
"I believe the person who is the housing coordinator must uphold the law, clearly, but I believe the housing coordinator, whoever that might be, ultimately needs to use his or her good judgment," Nelson said. "I feel this ordinance is being created for the benefit of one employee and I feel very uncomfortable voting on it.
"I abstain." [Nelson later explained the reason for his abstention.]
Council President Brian Stanton tried to reassure those opposed to the measure.
"I admit Jennifer Collins will have her hands full in the beginning," he said. "But I don't see this as a free for all for the housing system. I believe this will strengthen the law. I vote yes."