Rent issue surfaces at Silvermead

BY FRAIDY REISS Correspondent


FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Mount your horses, draw your swords and head to town hall.

In a move the township attorney predicted would bring back the “rent control wars” of the 1980s, Silvermead residents have refused to renew a long-standing rent-increase agreement with property owner Seymour Silver. Instead they asked the Township Committee to reinstate a rent control board that last convened two decades ago.

So the committee last month appointed five rent control board members, who will meet if and when Silver applies for a rent increase above the automatic annual increase allowed by township ordinance, or if and when residents appeal a rent increase.

Residents of Silvermead, a 400-unit manufactured-home park on Route 9 for people age 55 and older, own their homes but rent the pads on which the homes sit. They are currently the only residents who fall under the guidelines of the township’s rent control ordinance, which allows landlords automatic annual rent increases of 80 percent of the consumer price index (CPI) and establishes a rent control board to hear landlords’ requests for additional rent or tenants’ complaints about rent increases.

In 1982, after fighting a series of “rent control wars” before the board – including one battle that went all the way to the state Supreme Court – Silver and the residents decided to bypass the board and sign their own rent-increase agreements, Township Attorney Duane Davison said.

Since that time the two sides have renewed their agreement four times. The township’s rent control ordinance – which at this point applies only to Silvermead, Davison said – remained in effect, but the rent control board that is called for in the ordinance had no reason to convene.

However, after the most recent five-year agreement expired in 2004, the residents refused to renew it.

“We feel it’s to our benefit to go back under the rules of the township,” said Silvermead resident Paul Hessler, one of the presidents of Mobile Home Owners of America’s Silvermead chapter.

A group of residents, including but not limited to the park’s 170 MHOA members, voted 164 to 12 against signing Silver’s proposed renewal because they and their attorney believed they could get a better deal by appealing to the rent control board, Hessler said. One particular sticking point was their belief that Silver was unfairly tacking increases of his tax and utility bills onto the annual rent hikes, Hessler said.

Silver could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Chris Hanlon, of the firm Hanlon and Niemann, Freehold Township, said the property owner was “disappointed” that some residents had opted not to renew their agreement, but added that the decision to go back to the rent control board was “not truly representative of most residents in the community.”

“I think a small percentage of residents achieved that outcome,” Hanlon said.

He said his client will not apply to the board for a rent increase, because the rent control ordinance – which seems to require landlords to ask the board for any increases above 80 percent of CPI – could be interpreted to allow for automatic tax and utility increases. He declined to elaborate.

The five members appointed by the Township Committee to three-year unpaid terms on the rent control board were Leon Bruno Jr., Adam Geist, Maryann Rossotto, Sherry Gaffey and Jeff Kernis.

Kernis, the only one of the members who also sat on the last rent control board, said the Silvermead hearings of 20 years ago were lengthy and difficult.

“You got the emotional issue of fixed-income homeowners on one side, and the legitimate need of a real estate owner on the other side,” he said. “It’s not easy when you see older people coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we can’t do it.’ ”