Lucky for the Lord that He evicted Adam and Eve from their Eden tenancy before the passing of the New Jersey Anti-Eviction Act. Nowadays, He could not dismiss them from any Garden State residence quite so summarily. To get the first couple out based on violation of the landlord’s covenant would require serving notice at least 30 days prior to legal action. Of course, He might be able to evict them under the property damage clause, which requires only three days notice, but that would take a good lawyer. And since He had already cursed the lawyer for giving Eve counsel, it might prove a conflict of interest.
Ever since the laws of leasing fell into human hands, all parties have felt that the scales were tilted in the other person’s favor. To help folks ferret out the fair play in New Jersey’s laws, the State Bar Foundation (www.njsbf.com) offers “Tenant: Landlord Rights Issues” on Wednesday, March 15, at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Call 732-937-7518 or visit www.njsbf.com. Speakers include Scot Conover, an attorney with Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services and Matt Gildenberg, an attorney with Central Jersey Legal Services.
Both Central Jersey Legal Services and Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services are stand alone, for-profit corporations. Their aim is to provide certain kinds of legal advice and representation for those financially unable to afford it. They handle neither criminal cases or suits, but they do specialize in fraud, consumer cases, and landlord/tenant disputes. Eligibility depends on gross income and household size.
Conover’s well-laid plans never included the legal services career where he has spent his past 14 years. Born near his current practice in Allenhurst, he earning a B.S. in engineering from Villanova in l986, followed by a legal degree from Vermont Law School, Conover’s plan was to become a patent attorney. “Patent work is fascinating, and heaven knows very lucrative,” says Conover, “but here in legal services, I dispense so much help to so many people who just couldn’t make it without it.”
“The whole landlord/tenant situation is laden with myths that keep each side from taking advantage of what are some actually pretty fair laws,” says Conover.
Can’t-evict myth. Stories fly around. You can’t evict any seniors ever, for any reason. You can’t evict anyone during winter. Rent-assisted people are in forever — and on and on. The truth is that there are 18 viable ways for a landlord to oust a tenant from his apartment in fairly short order. The most important legal requirement in all cases is warning. In every case, even nonpayment of rent, the tenant must be warned beforehand that the landlord intends to take legal action within a certain number of days or that if the tenant does not cease certain activity, the landlord intends to take legal steps.
Many violations require surprisingly minimal notification. If the tenant does intentional damage to facilities, commits any sort of drug-related crime, or assaults the landlord, the statutes demand only three days before eviction. Disorderly conduct requires only three days prior warning to either cease or leave. It does not matter if the marijuana dealer is age 86, is receiving rent-assistance, and a blizzard is coming on. She can still be evicted.
Some notifications demand what seems to landlords an exhaustive amount of time. If the owner must move tenants out to repair health code violations, he must inform his tenants three months in advance. To turn the building into a co-op or condo requires three years notification for most folks, and for seniors it may require a whopping 40 years notice. (This particular “not-in-my-lifetime” clause is the source of many horror stories about landlord/tenant feuds.)
Once notice is served and the required number of days have elapsed, the landlord may file for legal action. Conover notes that the parties will be called for a hearing within 20 days, followed by a judgment given within three weeks. If the owner gains an eviction order, he may begin a lockdown within eight days.
What’s rent myth. “At least 95 percent of landlord/tenant disputes are over rent,” says Conover. Much of the time tenants just plain can’t pony up the cash, but often the dispute stems from the fact that the tenant does not understand the terms of payment. A tenant, for example, may go on vacation, but he still must pay his prorated share of utilities bills, which usually are not included in his rent.
Also, what Conover terms the grace period myth, has fooled more than one renter. If rent is due on the first of the month, even if the contract states that no legal action is taken until the 10th, interest may be charged from the first. Paying every month on the ninth makes you a habitual late-payer. Don’t be surprised if you are served with a notice to pay back interest and/or vacate within 30 days.
No rent strike myth. Yes, tenants as a group, or even individually, can withhold rent for reasons of non-repair. This said, renters should tread cautiously, and be ready to overwhelm the court with documentation. The statute requires the tenant to notify the landlord in writing at a least a few times that the item is broken.
If no response is made, a month’s prior notification can state that the renter will be placing a certain portion of his rent in an escrow account until the repair is made. Two caveats: first, the money must actually be placed in the escrow account; and second, a broken faucet does not make a rent holiday.
Match the withholding to the repair. While that leaky shower may be driving you insane, no judge is going to deem it worth a $500-a-month rent strike.
Replacement relocation. Who pays when the tenant must leave while the landlord repaints or repairs health code violations? This is a situation that is rarely addressed in rent or lease contracts, usually because the cost can be enormous. In most cases, the law doesn’t want to touch it either. Temporary relocation costs are a negotiable item between tenants and property owner. And often these fights become nasty, since neither side has any real leverage.
When the landlord wants to move in. “Generally speaking a renter has tenancy as long as he pays on time and does no real, intentional damage,” says Conover. The state does allow for landlords to take back possession of their own property if they plan to make it their own residence. But the owner who wants the tenant out so he can give the apartment to his niece will find a rough go in court.
When the tenant stays on after the lease expires. Many leases renew automatically when their term ends. But if a lease does not renew automatically, and if a tenant stays on after a lease expires, he does so under a month-to-month lease. This lease ends upon notification by the tenant that he is leaving or by the landlord that he must leave. (Full details on this and other landlord/tenant issues in New Jersey are available at www.lsnjlaw.org.)
It probably is ordained that landlords and the tenants of their prized property will forever face disputes. Eden’s owner gave the first couple only one rule for maintaining His garden as He wanted it. And they couldn’t resist breaking it. But if we have learned anything over the years, it may be how to settle little disputes — at least those that don’t in any way involve apples — with a little forgiveness and common sense.