“Rent” Means “Rent”: How Rent Control Laws Can Prohibit Fees & Costs in New Jersey Non-Payment Evictions

Local rent control laws are commonplace in New Jersey’s largest cities. Newark and Jersey City (New Jersey’s most populous cities) both maintain comprehensive rent control laws. The basics of these laws are well known. Rent control ordinances control the rent a landlord can charge and restrict the size of future rent increases. But, basic rent and rent increases are not the only financial obligations of tenancy. Many leases define late fees, attorney’s fees and other costs as “additional rent” to be collected from the tenant in an eviction action. Can these fees be collected from tenants in rent-controlled cities? Under Opex Realty Mgmt., LLC v. Taylor, (Law.Div.2019) the answer is: “No.” After Opex Realty (approved for publication on August 13, 2019), landlord and property managers of rent controlled properties should exercise care in drafting leases and initiating nonpayment evictions.

Opex Realty addressed a common-place but unresolved question. Does a rent control ordinance’s definition of “rent” necessarily preclude the collection of “additional rent” defined costs in a lease, when the collection of those costs exceeds the maximum rent under rent control? Prior to Opex Realty, tenants generally relied on Ivy Hill Park Apts. v. Sidisin, 258 N.J.Super. 19 (App.Div.1992). In Sidisin, the Appellate Division held that a landlord could not evict a tenant for “additional rent” (defined in a lease) when the same costs were not defined as “rent” under a rent control. The Opex decision arrives at the same conclusion of Sidisin, but with a different rationale.

Judge Petrillo’s Opex holding is that additional rent cannot be collected in a nonpayment eviction because the combination of additional rent and base rent exceeds the maximum allowable rent under rent control. Judge Petrillo held: “The court will not allow the landlord to circumvent rent control…and raise the rent beyond the lawful limits by labeling a late fee or legal fee as ‘additional rent…’” Emphasis added. The Opex decision is not that additional rent cannot be collected from rent controlled tenants. Rather, the decision is that additional rent cannot be collected when so doing exceeds the maximum legal rent. This is why, in dicta, Judge Petrillo added: “Were these tenants not already bearing the maximum rent allowed by law, the outcome might have been different.” A future post will address the practical implications of Opex and whether collecting “additional rent” is ever possible under rent control.

After Opex, landlords and property managers of rent controlled properties must not seek additional rent costs from tenants already paying the maximum legal rent. Further, nonpayment of rent complaints against tenants should not allege an entitlement to these amounts under these conditions. So doing exposes landlords, property managers, and their attorneys to liability under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 et. seq., and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692-1692p.

Offit Kurman, P.A., maintains a broad-based landlord and property owner representation practice. In New Jersey, Offit Kurman represents landlords and property managers in maximizing return, resolving disputes and avoiding unnecessary and costly delays.  The Firm’s New Jersey geographic practice area includes: Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Hudson County, Newark, Essex County, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, Paterson, Passaic County, Hackensack, Bergen County and other points across New Jersey.

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