Be it your first apartment rental or your 10th, a dispute with your landlord can make you feel unsure of both your rights as a tenant and the best way to proceed. You’re not the first or last person to be concerned about the cost of an attorney or the long-term effect an eviction could have on your ability to rent in the future.
If you live in New Jersey, there are fortunately ample resources to help you diffuse a disagreement with your landlord early on, as well as options to help you fight a dispute in court.
In 1976, the New Jersey state legislature passed the Truth in Renting Act, which guarantees all renters have free access to information about their rights as a tenant. In the law, landlords must distribute a free booklet of tenant rights information to all tenants, published by the state Department of Community Affairs, which provides up-to-date information on the lease contract, rights and requirements of paying rent, habitability and more.
Even with the information laid out in a pamphlet, it’s imperative that tenants know their rights when it comes to common issues with their landlord, from the maximum security deposit amount to how to address issues with major repairs.
Civil Rights and Fair Housing
Federal law protects all individuals from housing-related civil rights violations through the Fair Housing Act. Originally passed in 1968 and amended since, the Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from refusing housing to or mistreatment of tenants based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects even more groups of people from discrimination. The law stipulates that landlords cannot make leasing decisions based on race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, nationality, sex, gender identity or expression, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, source or lawful income or rent, familial status or marital, domestic partnership or civil union status.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development most often handles allegations of housing discrimination at the federal level. For discrimination that applies to New Jersey law, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has a Division on Civil Rights that is dedicated to enforcing the Law Against Discrimination as well as the New Jersey Family Leave Act.
In New Jersey, a landlord may file for eviction if:
— The tenant fails to pay rent.
— The tenant repeatedly violates the lease agreement.
— The tenant commits an illegal act on the property.
— The tenant has remained on the property after expiration of a lease contract without coming to a new agreement.
— The tenant’s conduct is interfering with the peace and quiet of either the landlord or other tenants.
— The tenant willfully destroys or damages the property.
“The most common type of dispute between landlords and tenants is, by far, disputes regarding non-payment of rent,” wrote Jennifer Alexander, an attorney at partner at Griffin Alexander P.C. who covers landlord-tenant law and other matters in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, in an email.
For situations like habitually late rent payments or disorderly conduct, the landlord must issue a notice to cease, which serves as a written warning. If issues continue, a notice to quit is required one month prior to filing for eviction in the case of late rent or lease violation, and three days prior to filing for eviction for disorderly conduct. In the case of nonpayment of rent, no notice is required to file for eviction with the court.
However, once in the court system, a tenant can stop an eviction for nonpayment of rent quickly by coming up with the rent due. Under a new law passed in January 2020, the additional leeway is extended past a lockout date by three days.
“When tenants pay all the money owed before a lockout in a non-payment matter, usually judges stop the lockout and require the landlord to accept the money as long as it is prior to the lockout date,” Alexander explains. “Now with the new law, this has been extended to up to three days after a lockout has occurred and the tenant has already been removed from the apartment.”
[Read: How Much Rent Can I Afford?]
All tenants have a right to live in habitable conditions, but they also have the responsibility to maintain and preserve a landlord’s property under New Jersey law. The landlord must maintain livable conditions in an apartment or rental home and must repair damages caused from normal wear and tear. This includes repairing existing air conditioning in a rental.
Alexander says that habitability claims are the second-most common claim she sees in court. Under New Jersey law, tenants have a right to withhold payment as a result of the landlord’s failure to repair and maintain vital aspects of the property. This could include repairing toilets, fixing a broken lock and making sure the heat works in winter.
A landlord may pursue eviction for any nonpayment of rent, but a tenant withholding rent for habitability reasons may request a Marini hearing, explains Michael Convery, counsel at the Keefe Law Firm in northeastern New Jersey.
A Marini hearing reviews the issue at hand and works with both the tenant and landlord to determine whether the repair needs to be made and if the landlord will make repairs or the tenant will repair and then deduct the cost from rent. To get a Marini hearing, however, the tenant must provide their unpaid rent to the court, which can stop eviction proceedings as long as an agreement is met and carried out from the hearing.
The struggle for many renters in this case, however, is in the time it takes to withhold rent and go to court. “Life gets interrupted, they had to spend the rent, and that becomes a problem,” says Alice Kwong, co-chief counsel on housing law at Legal Services of New Jersey, the statewide organization aimed at providing legal advice, services and representation for residents.
Security deposits in New Jersey are not permitted to be more than one-and-a-half months’ rent, and any additional annual security deposit may not be more than 10% of the existing deposit. If you’re bringing a pet with you, the pet security deposit must keep the total security deposit below the one-and-a-half months’ rent limit.
Additionally, the landlord is required to keep the security deposit in a separate interest-bearing account or invest it in an insured money market fund, depending on how many rentals the landlord owns. Any interest earned belongs to the tenant, legally, and must be paid in cash or credited toward rent on the anniversary of the tenant’s lease.
Landlords must follow strict rules regarding the security deposit, from notifying the tenant of the account number and location of the deposit account to returning the deposit and interest within 30 days of the end of a lease. To ensure they’re following every possible step, some landlords will treat the security deposit information like any other bank account. “They’ll make sure they get a bank statement to the tenant every month,” Convery says.
In cases of eviction, Convery says the details of the security deposit are often the first place a tenant’s attorney will check for violations. If the landlord has asked for too much money in a deposit or failed to make a separate bank account, “it immediately stops the eviction in its tracks,” Convery says.
The state of New Jersey does not have any laws establishing or banning rent control, which can regulate the size and frequency of rent increases or place limits on the cause of eviction. However, over 100 individual municipalities in the Garden State have enacted ordinances that establish rent control.
Even if your rental falls under a local rent control law, it doesn’t mean the landlord is properly following procedure. Check with your city or town government for details on the type of limits or approvals required for your rental, and how to go about reporting a suspected violation.
Finding Resources and Fighting Back
When facing a dispute with your landlord, don’t be afraid to seek help from an attorney, local tenant rights organization or other professional who can guide you.
Legal Services of New Jersey is a free legal service for state residents, operating its hotline and communicating via email statewide. Legal representation is possible for low-income residents, with five regional programs and 23 local offices located throughout the state.
If you’re struggling to afford rent, you can simply dial 211 on your phone or visit nj211.org to help you find assistance in coming up with the money you need, along with long-term solutions that could help you going forward. Kwong stresses that this resource can help you avoid eviction if you’re facing it now, as going into court with the money owed is “the best defense for nonpayment of rent.”
Always keep a record of contact with your landlord or property manager, whether it’s saving emails from maintenance requests or documenting face-to-face conversations about rent. If any dispute does escalate to court, clear and accurate documentation can help your case.
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What You Need to Know About Tenant Rights in New Jersey originally appeared on usnews.com