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Landlord-Tenant Issues: Illegal Apartments

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Virtually all residential landlords in New Jersey are required by law to register their apartments with the town in which the property is located. The only exception is when the owner of the apartment building lives in the building and there are less than three rental units in the building.

Further, all apartments must meet local zoning ordinances. While local zoning ordinances vary from town to town, illegal apartment zoning issues typically come up when a landlord rents out an attic, basement, or garage unit. Town ordinances are designed to maintain the health and welfare of the citizens and, as a result, illegal apartments typically also pose some significant health or safety risk. For instance, an attic unit may create a dangerous fire hazard if it does not have an accessible fire escape, while basement and garage units may fail to have the proper light or ventilation causing significant health concerns.

How do you know if you are in an illegal apartment? Many times tenants do not discover that their apartment is illegal until a town official tells them. However, in most cases a tenant suspicious of an illegal apartment can inquire with the local municipality’s zoning board. Some towns where illegal apartments are prevalent, such as Jersey City, even have websites where citizens can report suspected illegal apartments online.

What should you do if you discover that you are living in an illegal apartment? A tenant who finds out that she is living in an illegal unit should immediately start looking for a new place to live. If the town was not the entity which advised the tenant of the apartment’s illegality, than the tenant should inform the town and inquire whether the town has any relocation assistance programs.

When an apartment is illegal, the lease between the landlord and the tenant is considered void. While some believe that this entitles the tenant to stop paying rent and remain in the apartment rent-free, this is not necessarily true. In some cases, the landlord may be able to bring a separate action against the tenant for unpaid rent, depending on what the court deems equitable under the circumstances.

What the tenant can do is enforce New Jersey law, which requires that the tenant receive six times her monthly rent as relocation assistance. The landlord is required to pay this amount at least five days before the tenant is removed from the property. However, again, it is important to first check with the specific municipality, because this recovery is only available if the municipality has not enacted rules that provide a different remedy to tenants.

This relatively extreme remedy of six times the monthly rent owed to the tenant in a lump sum when the tenant leaves the property is a response to the strong public policy against illegal apartments. The law is intended to both penalize and dissuade landlords from renting out apartments which present serious health and safety concerns to their tenants. Tenants should be wary of attic, basement, and garage apartments, and when in doubt, check with their town to ensure that the apartment is legal under zoning ordinances.

The attorneys at McLaughlin & Nardi, LLC are experienced in landlord-tenant matters. and can aid in recovering this mandatory relocation assistance. To learn more about what we can do to help, please visit our website or contact one of our lawyers at (973) 890-0004.