Bureau of Housing Inspection v. 317 High Street, Newark

OAL Docket No. CAF 9652-98 (Department of Community Affairs 1999)
  • Opinion Date: May 20, 1999

MULTIPLE DWELLINGS; FRATERNITY HOUSES—For purposes of the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law, a fraternity house is a multiple dwelling.

A housing inspector examined a fraternity house and cited it for violations of the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law. The fraternity house claimed that the Department of Community Affairs’ (DCA’s) insistence that these violations be abated constituted a substantial interference with its ability to operate as a independent organization. It also claimed that its fraternity house was not a multiple dwelling within the contemplation of the law. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) opined that the law was enacted as remedial legislation to assure decent, standard, and safe units of dwelling space. Accordingly, the law must be liberally construed to effectuate its remedial intent. The law defines a multiple dwelling as: “[a]ny building or structure of one or more stories and any land appurtenant thereto, any portion thereof, in which three or more units of dwelling space are occupied, or are intended to be occupied by three or more persons who live independently of each other… .” The phrase, “live independently of each other ” is not defined in the statute, its corresponding regulations, or the case law. The fraternity contended that its residents were the functional equivalent of a family, living “interdependently” with each other, and therefore its house was not a “multiple dwelling” for the purposes of the statute. Under case law, a “family is defined as one or more persons living together as a stable and permanent living unit, either as a traditional family unit or its functional equivalent.” In a case dealing with a zoning law limiting buildings in a particular zone to occupancy by a “family,” the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the students living together were the functional equivalent of a family. The ALJ, however, found that the fraternity’s reliance on the cited case was misplaced because that case concerns the validity of a municipal zoning ordinance where there are unique constraints on a municipality’s zoning power. The DCA is an administrative agency, not a municipality and an administrative exercise of statutorily-delegated responsibility is accorded a strong presumption of validity and reasonableness. “Delegation of authority to an administrative agency is construed liberally when the agency is concerned with the protection of the health and welfare of the public.” Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the definition of a “multiple dwelling” must be read broadly and inclusively. Further, the ALJ held that had the Legislature intended to exempt fraternity houses from the definition of a “multiple dwelling” it could have followed the pattern that applied in the Rooming and Boarding Houses Act, where it expressly did so. The fraternity’s argument that its residents lived “interdependently,” as opposed to living “independently,” was found to lack merit, notwithstanding that all members of the fraternity shared a kitchen, dining room, common areas, and one and a half bathrooms. It didn’t matter to the ALJ that they shared yard work, household chores, and utilized a common checkbook to pay ordinary bills. The ALJ recognized that the phrase “live independently of each other” was arguably vague, that the phrase would certainly apply to unrelated tenants in an apartment building but would not apply to a traditional family, and that it would be difficult to draw the dividing line between one and the other. Nonetheless, based on the ALJ’s view of the legislative intent and the case law, it was held that the fraternity house was a “multiple dwelling” under the law.