Balancing the rights of a landlord with the rights of the tenant can be tricky. On the one hand the landlord, as the owner of the property, has the right to earn an income. On the other hand, the property is the tenant’s home, and he or she also has certain rights guaranteed under the law. It is important for both landlords and tenants to understand their rights and obligations, to insure that neither party takes advantage of the other, says attorney Michael Gildenberg, of Central Jersey Legal Services.
Gildenberg, along with Scott Conover, a supervising staff attorney with Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, will speak on Thursday, March 13, at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. The free seminar is sponsored by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation. For reservations call 1-800-Free Law.
The most common landlord/tenant issue Gildenberg deals with is eviction, he says. Gildenberg, who has worked with Legal Services since 1997, was initially drawn to the law because of a desire to help others. "It’s the thing I am most interested in, the law as a means to provide assistance and help other people."
Gildenberg received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lehigh University in 1991 and went to work for a non-profit environmental organization in Washington, D.C. "I quickly found out that a degree in psychology wasn’t going to allow me to further my career," he explains. He earned his law degree from Syracuse University in 1996.
He learned about Legal Services through a summer volunteer program with what was then known as Middlesex County Legal Services; he joined CJLS in 1997.
Gildenberg’s proudest accomplishment as an attorney came last year when he won a ruling in the state Supreme Court for a disabled woman who was in danger of being evicted from the home she was renting after the death of her mother. Because the mother had originally signed the lease, the daughter was considered an occupant of the home, rather than a tenant.
"The case established the daughter as a functional co-tenant and gave her the same tenant rights that her mother had," Gildenberg says. Because New Jersey’s anti-eviction law is so tough, "the decision means that this woman can stay in her home."
New Jersey’s anti-eviction act is one of the strictest in the nation. The act, signed into law in 1973, makes it difficult to evict a tenant without cause. "In many other states a person can be evicted from a property when the term of their lease is up. That is not the case in New Jersey," says Gildenberg.
Except in certain circumstances, a landlord cannot just terminate a lease when it has run its course. Some exclusions to this include "owner occupied property;" property such as a duplex where the owner lives in one unit and rents another. One example where it is possible to terminate a lease is if this type of property is sold to another owner who will also live on the property. However, even in this case, due notice must be given, says Gildenberg.
It may also be possible to terminate a lease if a property is being converted to a co-op or condominium or if the property is being converted to commercial use. However, termination notices can range anywhere from 18 months to three years in these circumstances. Because the state has made the eviction laws so strong, the eviction process itself takes less time in New Jersey than it does in most other states. "It’s the trade-off the state has given the landlords," says Gildenberg.
How does a landlord go about evicting a problem tenant? "It all comes down to the lease," he explains. Essentially, the tenant must be in violation of the lease agreement before he or she can be evicted. There are several common lease issues that Gildenberg sees.
Disorderly conduct. A tenant can be evicted for disorderly conduct that occurs at the rental property. Illegal actions, such as drug use, assaults, or threats on the landlord, can be cause for eviction.
Destruction of property. The intentional destruction of the rental property is also cause for conviction. The key word here is intentional, says Gildenberg. In other words, if the damage to the property is accidental, the landlord cannot evict the tenant.
Non-payment of rent. By far the most common reason for eviction that Gildenberg sees in his office is non-payment of rent. In fact, non-payment makes up about 90 percent of his cases involving landlord/tenant disputes. "A landlord must follow strict and rigid guidelines to make sure that he is giving proper notice and following procedure in eviction cases," says Gildenberg. But once the procedures have been followed, the eviction process is fairly fast.
After the complaint is filed the court sets up a date, at least 10 days in advance of the notification, for a hearing on the eviction. "In many states this is followed by a lengthy process of filings and discovery, but in New Jersey this has been stripped from the eviction process," he says. "The state is concerned that the property owner has the ability to earn income from his property. If a case drags on for months, that is time during which the landlord is unable to earn income," he adds.
Security deposits. Another area of tenant law that a landlord must be aware of involves security deposits. A deposit can be as much as one and a half months’ rent, and it must be held in trust for the tenant throughout the term of the lease. The landlord is required to give the tenant written notice of the bank in which the deposit is held, and the percentage of interest that will be received. The landlord cannot use the security deposit for any other purpose, including making repairs to a property throughout the term of the tenant’s lease. "The security deposit is to be used to cover repairs or damages found at the end of the lease, including covering any unpaid rent."
The best way to avoid problems is to have a good lease, says Gildenberg. If you are the property owner, make sure that your lease is written clearly, so that there can be no misunderstandings about what your tenants are allowed to do. If you are the renter, make sure that you carefully read the entire lease before you sign it.