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Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Atlantic City v. Spratley

A-2739-98T1, 1999 WL 1295205 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999)

LEASES; RENEWAL; AMENDMENT—Insisting upon adding a federally mandated clause to a residential lease allowing no-fault eviction for drug related activities is not unreasonable and a tenant still has the right to challenge its reasonableness in application.

Federal Law requires all public housing agencies to incorporate in their leases an “accountability” provision. In pertinent part, that mandated clause states: “any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants or any drug related criminal activity on or off such premises, engaged in by a public housing tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, or any guest or other person under the tenant’s control, shall be cause for termination of [the] tenancy.” Several public housing tenants were presented with new leases incorporating language that essentially tracked the federally mandated provision. Those tenants refused to accept the proposed leases for fear they would be subject to eviction for the criminal acts of other parties. After serving the tenants with appropriate notices, the housing authority filed summary dispossess complaints against each tenant. In doing so, it relied upon the New Jersey statute which permits a summary eviction where the tenant refuses to accept “reasonable changes of substance in the terms and conditions of the lease.” The lower court found that the federally mandated lease provision was “unreasonable” because it “subject[ed] tenants to eviction for the criminal acts of others over whom they ha[ve] no control” and about whose activities “they ha[ve] no knowledge.” The Appellate Division disagreed. In its view, it believed that if, as the tenants contended, the statute did not authorize a federally funded housing authority to evict a tenant without fault, the courts would be obliged to construe the lease provision accordingly if a summary dispossess action were brought against the tenants for failure to abide by the lease provision. Therefore, in the view of the Court, the tenants would not have been placing themselves in jeopardy by signing the addendum which was essentially silent on the question of fault and strict liability. Stated differently, “acceptance of a renewal lease should not bar tenants from later challenging the reasonableness of a term contained therein.” Even though New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act has the overall purpose of protecting blameless tenants from eviction, the Court believed that the Legislature implicitly gave effect to federal primacy in defining the rights of tenants in federally funded housing projects. For that reason, the Court concluded that the lower court erred when it found the federally-mandated accountability clause unreasonable under New Jersey law.


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