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Rockhill v. Borough of Collingswood

A-2963-02T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

MUNICIPALITIES; VIOLATIONS—A municipality is within its rights to relocate tenants at a property owner’s expense as a way to correct a property violation.

A landlord was served with a notice to correct various property violations, including an allegation that a basement apartment lacked adequate egress. Four months passed, and the property again failed an inspection. The landlord pleaded guilty to the violation in municipal court and paid a fine. After the court appearance, and after receiving several more notices from the municipality, the landlord still did not correct the violation. The municipality relocated the basement tenants to a local motel until they could find suitable housing and then passed a resolution charging the property owner with the cost of the relocating. The municipality placed a lien on the property for those costs. In response, the landlord filed a complaint alleging that the lien was improper.

At trial, the landlord testified when she decided that it was too expensive to install a window, she told her tenants to vacate the apartment and tried to assist them in finding alternate housing. She claimed the tenants returned to the apartment without her consent, but she continued to collect rent after their return. The lower court denied her any relief.

The municipality’s code provided that if a property owner fails to correct a violation, the municipality could do the work. On appeal, the landlord contended that the municipality did not correct the violation by relocating the tenants. She argued that the ordinance required the municipality to install a second means of access before it could be entitled to seek reimbursement. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that the essence of the violation was the failure to have proper egress for the tenants. It held that if the basement had been used for storage or some other purpose, there would have been no violation. Further, municipalities are authorized to require a property owner to pay relocation costs when tenants have to vacate their apartments because of zoning, violations or a need to remove building code violations. For those reasons, the Court held that the municipality was within its rights to correct the violation by relocating the tenants and it could impose the relocation costs on the landlord.

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