Cherry Hill looks to phase out rent control

Posted: June 12, 2012

Cherry Hill is preparing to scale back rent control, prompting fears among senior citizens that they soon could be priced out of their apartments and forced to move to less expensive suburbs.

The ordinance on the township council's agenda Monday, which passed its first reading unanimously last month, would terminate rent control on apartments only once they become vacant; current renters would not be affected. Still, some tenants fear that the measure is the first wave and that in a few years, landlords will be back, asking the township to end protection for low-income families.

"It's a backdoor way of abolishing it, just a real slow leak," said Rae Haltzman, a resident and former tenants association president of the Grand apartments on Route 70. "I know it's no different anywhere else. Cherry Hill is one of the last communities to have rent control."

Rent control is designed to protect renters from dramatic rent increases, but municipalities have long been phasing it out in New Jersey, with approximately 100 of the state's 566 municipalities currently maintaining the practice, according to the New Jersey Apartment Association. New Jersey is one of only four states, along with Washington, D.C., that allow rent control, which is usually administered by a local board that keeps rent increases in line with general price inflation.

Erin Gill, Cherry Hill director of policy and planning, said the town was trying to balance the needs of tenants, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, with the demands of landlords, who say the rents they are collecting are not high enough to maintain the properties.

"The ordinance β€œis the way to save rent control for now," she said. "We're in a situation where the landlords say they're not making enough to make changes to the buildings."

Cherry Hill has roughly 2,000 apartments spread across eight buildings, and tenants have been feeling the pinch, as the rent control board grants waivers to landlords above the standard increase.

Earlier this year the rent control board approved a 12 percent rent increase at the Towers of Windsor Park apartment building after a "hardship" bid by the landlord. The owners successfully argued the standard allowance for a rent increase β€” stagnant since the downturn in the economy β€” was not sufficient to maintain the building, Gill said.

Now the Grand, where rent ranges from $950 for a studio to $2,200 for a three-bedroom, has applied for a 16 percent "hardship" increase, which many seniors could not afford, said Haltzman, 57.

"My mother and father-in-law live in the building. Their financial adviser told them they're going to have to move if the rent goes up," she said. "It's a sin what's happening. People are struggling just to stay on their feet."

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com or on Twitter @osborneja

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