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Maglies v. Estate of Guy

386 N.J. Super. 449, 901 A.2d 971 (App. Div. 2006)

LANDLORD-TENANT; SECTION 8; EVICTION — Federal regulations under the Section 8 Housing Assistance Program allow landlords to select their own tenants and to evaluate the fitness of Section 8 recipients as with any other prospective tenant; therefore, a landlord is not obligated to accept a family member of a deceased Section 8 tenant as its new tenant.

A tenant rented an apartment in a four-unit dwelling and participated in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, under which she received a rent subsidy funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This subsidy was paid pursuant to a Housing Assistance Payment Contract between the landlord, the tenant, and the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which administers the Section 8 program for HUD as a public housing agency.

The tenant’s daughter moved into the apartment. She was not a party to the lease or to the Housing Assistance Payment Contract. However, she was designated in both documents as an occupant of the household.

The tenant died, leaving her daughter as the sole occupant of the apartment. The daughter failed to make timely payment of the rent. When the daughter attempted to tender her late mother’s share of the rent, the landlord refused to accept it because it did not want to lease the apartment to the daughter. She had a poor credit history and also allegedly suffered from psychological problems that prevented her from taking care of herself or the apartment.

Based on the daughter’s failure to pay rent, the landlord brought an action against her mother’s estate for summary dispossession for nonpayment of rent. The lower court permitted the daughter to intervene and subsequently converted the case into an eviction action in which both parties sought a determination of the daughter’s right to retain possession of the apartment. The lower court concluded that under the federal statutes and regulations governing the Section 8 housing subsidy program, the daughter was a bona fide remaining member of the tenant family at the time her mother died and was entitled to enjoy all occupancy rights to which she was entitled prior to her mother’s death. This was because a remaining family member’s occupancy rights are not terminated by the death of any member. Accordingly, the lower court ordered the landlord to allow the daughter to continue occupancy of the apartment provided she paid the rent.

On appeal, the landlord argued that neither federal statutes nor regulations governing the Section 8 housing assistance program, nor the Anti-Eviction Act conferred any right upon the daughter to continue occupancy of the apartment the landlord had leased to her mother.

At the outset, the Court noted that if it were not for the statutes and regulations governing the Section 8 housing assistance program and New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act, the landlord clearly would be entitled to refuse to enter into a lease with the daughter and to evict her from the apartment it had rented to her mother. The Court reasoned that because the lease between the landlord and the her mother had expired, the mother was a holdover tenant on a month-to-month tenancy at the time of her death. Although the mother’s estate would have succeeded to her tenancy under the common law, the landlord could have terminated the tenancy by giving one month’s notice. Accordingly, the Court determined that the issue was whether the statutes and regulations relied upon by the daughter changed this common-law rule.

The Court explained that a contract between a public housing agency and the owner of an existing housing unit for rental assistance payments must give the landlord the right to select its own tenants. Further, the federal regulations indicated that the selection of tenants by landlords was meant to permit landlords to evaluate the fitness of Section 8 recipients as they would any other prospective tenant.

The Court found nothing to support the daughter’s claim that she was entitled to succeed to the tenancy rights in her mother’s apartment. In the absence of an affirmative grant of such a succession right in the federal statutes and regulations, the Court concluded that this right should not be implied.

Notwithstanding, the daughter argued that she was a remaining member of the tenant family with whom the landlord entered into a Section 8 tenancy, and therefore, he could only evict her in accordance with the Section 8 statute and regulations. However, the Court reasoned that even assuming the daughter became part of the tenant family when she moved in with her mother (the tenant) and was entitled, upon her mother’s death, to continue in the Section 8 program as a remaining member of the tenant family, it did not mean she also succeeded to her mother’s leasehold and that the landlord was required to accept her as a succession tenant. The Court further reasoned that the landlord never selected the daughter as a tenant; he only allowed her to occupy the apartment that it rented to her mother. After the mother’s death ended her tenancy and the daughter sought to enter into her own tenancy, the landlord had the right to evaluate the daughter’s creditworthiness and fitness as a tenant in the same way as any other prospective tenant. Thus, the Court held that upon the mother’s death and the expiration of her month-to-month tenancy, the daughter had no automatic right under the federal law or the regulations governing the Section 8 housing choice voucher program to continue her occupancy of the apartment.

Recognizing that her mother was entitled to the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act during her lifetime, the daughter contended that she also was entitled to the protections of the Act as her mother’s assign, under-tenant or legal representative. The Court noted that the Anti-Eviction Act did not include any definition of these terms. However, they have well-established meanings. An “assign” or “assignee” is one to whom property rights or powers are transferred by another. An “under-tenant,” which is synonymous with a “sublessee,” is defined as a third party who receives by lease some or all of the leased property from a lessee. The Court found that the tenant did not transfer her rights under the lease with the landlord to her daughter or sublet the apartment to her. Thus, the Court held that the daughter was not an “assign” or “under-tenant” of the tenant. Further, the record did not indicate whether the daughter was the executor or administrator of her mother’s estate. However, even if the daughter were her mother’s legal representative, the Court had previously concluded that the relevant statute should not be “construed literally” to allow a legal representative to succeed to the decedent’s perpetual term, which would have the effect of a conversion of the present virtual life interest of the tenant into a virtual fee simple. Therefore, the Court concluded that the daughter was not entitled to the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act with respect to the apartment owner leased to her mother.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the judgment of the lower court allowing the daughter to continue occupying the apartment the landlord leased to her mother.

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