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Housing Authority & Urban Redevelopment Agency of City of Atlantic City v. Taylor

171 N.J. 580, 796 A.2d 193 (2002)

LANDLORD-TENANT; PUBLIC HOUSING; EVICTION— Federal law precluding a landlord from evicting a public housing tenant for failure to pay legal costs overrides New Jersey law which would otherwise allow for eviction if those charges were designated in a lease as additional rent.

A woman rented an apartment from a federally-funded public housing agency. When she fell behind in her rent, the agency sought to evict her. On the date of the eviction hearing, the tenant paid her “past due rent but contested the attorney’s fees, late charges, and court costs that she was obligated to pay under the terms of the lease.” She claimed that the charges were not additional rent and their payment could not be required to avoid eviction. Her landlord, the agency, pointed out that the lease specifically characterized those charges as “additional rent.” Under New Jersey law, non-payment of additional rent is grounds for eviction. The tenant, however, pointed out that federal law, specifically the Brooke Amendment, limits “the amount of rent that public housing tenants can be charged [and] prohibits a public housing authority from assessing tenants attorneys’ fees, late charges, and court costs in an eviction proceeding ... .” Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, a “state law that conflicts with federal law is preempted by the federal law. The federal language preempting state law may be explicit or implied where: 1) the scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to leave room for state supplementation; or 2) where the compliance with both the state and federal law are impossible or where the state law is an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes of objectives of Congress.” The Court had no question that “federal laws and regulations, rather than state law, may govern in the public housing context.” Here, the Brooke Amendment sharply distinguishes between tenant rent and other charges. “Tenant rent is defined as the amount payable monthly by the family as rent to the public housing authority.” The Brooke Amendment also specifically prohibits provisions that require a tenant to pay attorneys’ fees and other legal costs in an eviction action. Therefore, it didn’t matter that state law authorized the housing authority to designate certain charges, “such as attorneys’ fee[s], late fees and costs as ‘additional rent,’” because such a provision is preempted by the federal law. Because those elements of “additional rent” did not constitute tenant rent due under the lease, “they [could not] serve as a basis for a summary dispossess against [a tenant] for nonpayment of rent.” Public housing authorities retain the right to collect those additional charges, but not through eviction proceedings.

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