Articles of Interest

  • Landlord drops 1-year lease bomb

    Janet Portman

    Q: I have a friend who has been renting for two years under successive one-year leases, and now his landlord is threatening to evict him if he does not agree to sign a third one-year lease (my friend wants to go month-to-month). I thought that in some states it is illegal to refuse a tenant the ability to pay month-to-month. Is this the case in New Jersey?

    It all seems pretty unreasonable, because it means that the tenant can move only at one point in the year (before signing another yearlong lease), and the fact is that our lives don't (and shouldn't) revolve around our landlords. --David T.

    A: As disappointing as it may be for tenants, there's no explicit law in New Jersey protecting tenants from landlords who insist on renting with leases rather than on a month-to-month basis.

    A case can be made in favor of a month-to-month rental in some situations, as explained below, but whether your friend can make this argument, let alone prevail, will depend on his persuasiveness, not legal authority.

    Your confusion may stem from New Jersey's unusual provision that landlords cannot refuse to renew a lease unless one of several "just causes," or allowable reasons, exist. But unfortunately for your friend, that rule doesn't go further to require landlords to change the length of the rental term at the tenant's request.

    Specifically, termination is allowed after "the landlord or owner proposes, at the termination of a lease, reasonable changes of substance in the terms and conditions of the lease, including specifically any change in the term thereof, which the tenant, after written notice, refuses to accept ..." (see: N.J. Stat. Ann. Sec. 2A:18-61.1(h)).

    Under this provision, if the landlord had asked for a six-month lease, and the tenant refused, the landlord might be able to terminate, arguing that his "change in the term (of the lease)" is allowable. But that's not the same as saying that a tenant who wants a month-to-month arrangement can require the landlord to offer it.

    It bears pointing out that under New Jersey's law, changes in terms and conditions must be reasonable. "Reasonable" is the lawyer's favorite word, and the non-lawyer's most frustrating one. Fortunately, there's guidance from Legal Services of New Jersey, who offer the following explanation of the "reasonable" requirement: "To be 'reasonable,' the changes must take into account the circumstances and interests of both the landlord and the tenant. This means that your landlord cannot make lease changes that he or she knows will cause you unnecessary hardship, unless he or she has very strong reasons for doing so.

    "For example, at the end of your lease, your landlord wants to change the lease by putting in late charges if your rent is paid after the fifth day of the month. The landlord knows that you do not get paid or receive your assistance check until the third or fourth day of the month, and that it will be very hard for you to get the rent money to him by the fifth.

    "You refuse to sign the new lease, and the landlord takes you to court to try to evict you. In court, the judge should decide that the lease change is not reasonable because the landlord knows that you cannot pay the rent by the fifth of the month and should have picked a later date."

    One can imagine situations in which it makes perfect sense for a tenant to want to have the flexibility of a month-to-month rental instead of a lease. Suppose, for example, that the landlord knows that the tenant has bought a house and will be closing escrow within a few months.

    Demanding a yearlong lease, knowing that this will place the tenant in the unfortunate position of having to break the lease when the sale finalizes, certainly isn't very nice. But it's not illegal.

    Q: You recently wrote about whether a person who wants to rent a room in her house must follow antidiscrimination laws. The answer seemed to boil down to this: The owner can advertise for a male or female lodger, but when it comes to interviewing, she can discriminate along other lines (such as race, religion, and so on) as long as she keeps her mouth shut. How cynical is this? But also, how stupid? Isn't someone entitled to free choice when it comes to the person they're going to live with? --Marcia S.

    A: An accurate explanation of the law may not satisfy everyone. You're not alone in thinking that applying this aspect of fair housing law to shared-living situations is inappropriate.

    But let's look first at a situation in which holding an owner to the letter of the federal law would not be absurd at all. Many would agree that telling a potential lodger, "I don't rent to (people of your race)" is unacceptable. It's an exclusionary policy that is hurtful and irrational, because underlying the statement is a hateful stereotype.

    Some would argue that when an owner engages in the business of renting out a room, that owner loses the free speech rights that would otherwise allow him to get up on a soap box and declare, "People of (a particular race) are not fit to live with."

    But what about a situation in which an owner wants to find a compatible roommate and is not bent on excluding others for nasty, stereotypical reasons. Imagine, for example, someone who keeps Kosher and doesn't perform any acts of labor on the Sabbath, including turning on lights or using appliances.

    Shouldn't that person have the legal right to seek out a roomer who follows the same practices? True, she would be excluding applicants of other religions, but not because she disrespects them or thinks they are inferior. She simply wants to find a compatible housemate and kindred spirit, yet in California, at least according to one administrative law judge, she'd be subject to antidiscrimination rules if she asks applicants at the door about their religious beliefs and practices.

    Some years back, a case from the city of Madison, Wis., involved similar facts (see: State ex rel Sprague v. City of Madison, 205 Wis. 2d 110 (1996)). Roommates advertising for a lodger decided not to rent to an applicant when the applicant shared the fact that she was a lesbian.

    The applicant alleged a violation of the city antidiscrimination law; the court sided with the applicant, holding that Madison's antidiscrimination statute had no exception for lodger situations (the state Supreme Court refused to take the case, as did the U.S Supreme Court). The city later amended the statute to create some exceptions for those who rent out rooms.

    The lesson for those intending to rent a room in their house is clear: Check with a local lawyer who can tell you whether courts in your state have addressed the issue of advertising and screening in the context of renting to a lodger. Many states simply have not addressed the issue. If that's the case where you live, you may need to be prepared to take a chance -- or you may want to ask your legislators to introduce legislation that you think is sensible.

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