By Erin Delmore
“Landlords have the upper hand. The deck is stacked against desperately poor tenants,” said Seton Hall Law School Professor Paula Franzese.
If you’re a renter in New Jersey, chances are, you don’t know your rights. A study published this month in the Rutgers Law Review shows an overwhelming number of Garden State renters living with insufficient heat and plumbing — even infestation — lost their court cases. And it cost them their homes.
“They default in court,” Franzese said.
Franzese led an investigation into 40,000 cases where Essex County residents were faced with eviction for not paying their rent.
“Of those 40,000, only 80 had tenants asserting their basic rights and asserting as a defense that the premises were unlivable,” she said.
“Establishing basic housing of functioning heat, regular hot water, regular plumbing, free of pestilence in the building is the floor that maintains units and keeps apartments available for everyone,” said Abbott Gorin at Seton Hall Law School.
The Seton Hall team said while state law is “fiercely protective” of tenants, too few are asserting their rights, which allow them to hold back rent while the landlord fixes the problem. And if the landlord doesn’t remedy the issue? He or she still rakes in federal dollars for low-income housing subsidies. Franzese says that part of the law needs to change.
“The derelict breaching landlord can be assured of a continued access to cash flow from the government notwithstanding his or her breach, while the tenant struggling to simply stay afloat and remediate and try to keep her kids safe is out of luck,” she said.
The study found few tenants pursue legal action against their landlords. Many can’t afford legal help, or to take a day off work to go to court. Others fear being put on a “tenant blacklist” — a centralized registry of residents who have gone to court against their landlord. These lists are common in states all over the country, culled by private companies and given to landlords.
“A tenant who is placed on that registry finds it difficult, if not impossible, to rent premises successfully in the future,” Franzese said.
The report offers recommended reforms to New Jersey’s landlord-tenant laws, including a computerized database of past housing code inspections. The results would be available to housing court judges, and landlord’s history would come to bear on future cases. Franzese says with its help, judges could cut off housing subsidies to landlords once a credible claim is raised by a tenant. Her team also calls for more coordination between housing courts, inspectors and rent subsidizing agencies, plus, greater access to legal representation, especially for low-income tenants. And when it comes to tenant blacklisting, they say, don’t punish tenants who won their cases. Give full case information on those who lost. And give everyone an opportunity to clear their names.