New Jersey Landlords Continue to Struggle with the Life Tenant

1367015_modern_apartment_building.jpgOur office previously reported on techniques that landlords sometimes employ to combat the onerous restrictions imposed by New Jersey’s concept of the “life tenant.” However, during the past several months since we wrote that article, we are still receiving an alarming number of questions from landlords about their ability to terminate a residential tenancy simply because the lease is expired. Accordingly, we are now going to elaborate on the concept of the “life tenant” in greater detail.

The overwhelming majority of residential tenants are protected by New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 Et. Seq. Specifically excepted from the restrictions of the Anti-Eviction Act are some seasonal tenants and certain tenants of owner occupied houses. All other tenants enjoy the comfort of knowing that they cannot ever be evicted except for good cause.

The Anti-Eviction Act then goes on to discuss the various causes under which a residential tenant can be evicted. Depending on how you count them, you should find about 17 different allowable reasons for evicting the residential tenant. The reasons include the following:

a. non-payment of rent b. disorderly activity c. willful or grossly negligent destruction d. breach of landlord’s rules e. breach of lease covenants f. failure to pay rent increase g. dwelling deemed uninhabitable (relocation assistance must be paid)
h. permanent retirement of rental i. failure to accept lease change j. habitual failure to pay rent k. condo conversion
l. personal occupancy (by owner or purchaser)
m. termination of employment (where tenancy is conditioned upon employment with landlord)
n. drug offenses
o. assault or terroristic threats p. assault or terroristic threats or drug violations proven in civil hearing q. theft of property
Most importantly, we note that the reasons for evicting a residential tenant do not include expiration of the lease. The law simply provides that, in the event that a residential lease expires, the tenant reserves the right to remain in the premises as a month-to-month tenant. Even in cases in which there never was a written lease, the tenant remains protected by the Anti-Eviction Act and is automatically deemed a month-to-month tenant.

The law further states that any lease clause telling the tenant that he or she must vacate by a certain date is void and unenforceable. In light of this rule, landlords with winter and summer rentals need to be especially careful on drafting their leases to ensure that their winter tenants do not “hold over” into the more expensive summer period.

Finally, we have observed situations in which a residential tenant sends a letter to the landlord, advising the landlord of the tenant’s intention to vacate by a certain date. Very often, the landlord even relies on that statement and procures a new renter. The law states that even under these circumstances, the failure of the tenant to move on the date set forth by the tenant does not create a cause for eviction. See Chapman Mobile Homes v. Huston, 226 N.J. Super 505 (Law Div. 1988)

In light of these factors, New Jersey landlords need to be especially cognizant of the rights of the residential tenants and implement the proper safeguards to minimize their risks. Each new tenant is a potential adversary in a later action. Landlords are cautioned to be diligent in screening new tenants and preparing proper leases.