The New Jersey Safe Housing Act is a new law that allows domestic violence victims and/or their children who are tenants to end their lease before it is over. The purpose of the law is to help victims who are tenants find safe, long-term housing. The number of this law, called the cite, is N.J.S.A 46:8-9.4. (A cite tells you the book in which the law is located.)
Tenants must give written notice to the landlord
Under the law, a tenant must give the landlord written notice to end a lease early. The lease will then end 30 days after the landlord receives this notice. You are required to pay the rent until this 30th day. The notice must tell the landlord that:
- Staying in the leased apartment or building will cause the victim/tenant or tenant’s child or any child to face an immediate threat of serious physical harm from another person. For the purposes of this law, the definition of domestic violence has been expanded to include a threat against any child. The child does not have to be a child born to the victim and the abuser.
- The threat of serious physical harm comes from a specific person. (Tenants may not end a lease based on a general threat.) For example, this requirement would be met if the abuser knows where the victim lives and there has been a previous incident of domestic violence (even if it did not occur at the leased location).
The written notice must include other evidence of the threat
The victim/tenant must send other evidence (proof) of the threat with the written notice ending the lease. The other evidence should show the reasons the victim/tenant is facing an immediate threat of serious physical harm. The following documents are examples of acceptable evidence of the threat:
- A certified (official) copy of a final (not a temporary) restraining order based on the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act protecting the victim/tenant from the same abusive person named in the written notice
- A certified copy of a final restraining order from another jurisdiction (state or country) based on the domestic violence law of that other jurisdiction protecting the victim/tenant from the same abusive person named in the written notice
- A law enforcement agency record (such as a police report) documenting the domestic violence or certifying (officially stating) that the victim/tenant or child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence
- The notes or reports of a doctor or nurse or other health care provider from a hospital or emergency room or private medical office describing injuries from the domestic violence
- A written certification (official statement) from a certified Domestic Violence Specialist or the director of a designated (officially recognized) domestic violence agency stating that the tenant or a child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence
- Other documentation or certification from a licensed social worker that the tenant or a child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence.
The other documents that a victim/tenant sends with the written notice to the landlord are very important. Please note that:
- Any restraining order sent must be a final restraining order (FRO). A temporary restraining order (TRO) by itself is not enough, although a TRO sent with other acceptable documentation may help.
- The people who write reports or letters should state the reasons they are qualified to write the reports and attach a copy of their résumé.
- The report or letter should explain what the person is relying on in order to talk about the victim of domestic violence. For example, the writers should mention any in-person meeting or any other documents that were reviewed.
It is recommended that the tenant be connected with their county domestic violence agency. For a list of these agencies, see the appendix of our handbook, Domestic Violence: A Guide to the Legal Rights of Domestic Violence Victims in New Jersey.
When will the lease end?
Thirty days after the landlord receives the notice and other documents, the lease will end and the victim/tenant may stop paying rent. The victim/tenant must pay rent until that 30th day.
If there are other tenants on the lease, the other tenants’ lease also ends. The other tenants may enter into a new lease if the landlord chooses. The other tenants should not be removed from the home, unless the landlord has good cause under landlord/tenant laws.
What about my security deposit?
If you end your lease and leave, the New Jersey Safe Housing Act states that the landlord must return your security deposit within 15 days after you are out. The law allows the landlord to keep part of the deposit if you damaged the apartment or owe rent. The landlord must send a notice to your last known address within three business days after you leave to let you know where you can go to get your deposit back. If the landlord has kept some of the deposit money, the written notice must also tell you why. If you do not agree with the reasons the landlord gives for keeping some of the deposit, you may sue the landlord in small claims court for two times the amount he kept, plus any fees you pay if you have to hire an attorney to help you. (The cite to the law that says this is N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.)
What if I live in public housing?
If you live in public housing, or some other building that is subsidized, or have a Housing Choice voucher (also called a Section 8 voucher), you may have to do other things in order to end a lease.
- Give proper notice. The first thing you should do is look at your lease and see what it says about any notices you need to give to the Housing Authority or landlord if you want to get out of your lease. There is also a federal law, called the Violence Against Women Act, that can help you if you live in public or subsidized housing or have a voucher. (The cite to this law is P.L. 109-162.)
- Get the Housing Authority to help you. The Housing Authority may evict the abuser and let you stay. Another thing the Housing Authority or the landlord can do if you are in danger of being harmed by your abuser is move you to another apartment. If you have a voucher, you may use the New Jersey Safe Housing Act to end your lease and move to another house or apartment. The Housing Authority in charge of your voucher should help you do this.
Whether you live in public housing or subsidized housing or have a voucher, one of the most important things you will need is some proof that you are a victim of domestic violence. The same kind of proof that is needed under the New Jersey Safe Housing Act should be enough. (This proof is described above.)
Personal information must be kept confidential
To be successful and end a lease under this law, you will have to reveal very personal information about your situation. The New Jersey Safe Housing Act requires that landlords and/or municipal clerks must keep it private and confidential. They are prohibited from revealing any information about the domestic violence. Landlords are also specifically prohibited from entering the information into any “shared database,” such as one that would be available to tenant-screening companies or other agencies that generate tenant-screening reports. The law does, however, allow the landlord to use the information with your consent, if necessary for a future court proceeding about the tenancy.
The New Jersey Safe Housing Act goes a long way in helping victims of domestic violence who are trying to leave a dangerous situation. If you are a victim seeking assistance with a domestic violence issue, please call LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
This article is from the October 2010 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.
This information last reviewed 10/14/10.