Republicans Say Senate Bill to End Rent Discrimination Unfair to Landlords

Colleen O'Dea | June 11, 2019 | Housing
Ending discrimination is goal of measure voted out in Senate, but critics say it forces landlords to accept renters into their own houses — even if they are uncomfortable with their presence

room for rent
The New Jersey Senate advanced on Monday a pair bills to help advance tenants’ rights, including a measure one Republican deemed “very controversial” that would prevent anyone who rents out an apartment or room from discriminating against any prospective tenant.

Drawing some opposition was S-3538, sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), which would expand the state’s Law Against Discrimination to essentially all rental units. That law prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and other matters on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, and other characteristics. Currently, the law does not apply to an apartment in a two-family house when the owner occupies the other residence or to a room in a house or apartment.

Singleton portrayed the bill as a civil rights measure needed to improve the state’s already expansive laws.

“Expanding the provisions of the Law Against Discrimination to cover the rental of all dwelling units will ensure that renters have fair access to affordable housing and that their rights are protected,” he said in a statement.

Unintended consequences

But several Republican lawmakers warned of unintended consequences that could force people to agree to rentals that would make them uncomfortable or could be dangerous.

“This is a departure from all of our past anti-discrimination laws,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). “There is a difference between discrimination and preference, and we have made a public policy in this state that in commercial dealings they are almost the same thing and we can’t discriminate.”

He said, for instance, that if the bill passes, an elderly woman who advertises a room for rent in her home would be forced to rent to a mentally ill person who answers the ad, even if having this individual in her home makes her feel uncomfortable. “I don’t think that an elderly person being afraid is so unusual nor do I think it’s discriminatory,” Cardinale added.

Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean) presented other examples. An individual living on the bottom floor of a two-family house could not refuse to rent to a couple with young children even if he might be disturbed by the sound of the children running and playing above him. And young women living in a condo could not reject renting a spare bedroom to a male, even if it would make them feel uncomfortable.

“This is someone’s home, not a business,” he said. A couple should not be denied because of their race, “but not wanting to have children in your own home, when you may need your rest or whatever, is not discrimination,” Singer added.

Posted for vote

Cardinale asked Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to hold the bill until Singleton could be present to answer questions. Sweeney declined, saying Singleton — who just had surgery — had asked for the bill to be posted for a vote.

The bill had been scheduled for a vote in a prior session but instead was amended to require that all renters newly covered by the anti-discrimination law as a result of the bill would get a copy of a reference guide explaining the legal rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords of residential units, prepared and distributed by the Department of Community Affairs.

Enough other senators had concerns about the bill that it passed with the bare minimum 21 votes. Eight Republicans, including Cardinale and Singer, opposed it. Several other Republicans and three Democrats abstained. The measure now heads to the Assembly for further consideration.

Housing advocates back the bill and hope it continues to move forward to enactment.

“We support ending housing discrimination against people, regardless of where they make their home,” said Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, adding its passage would help the state “take a step forward towards ending housing discrimination.”

More time to pay back-owed rent

The other pro-tenant measure, S-3124, would give tenants a little more time to pay back-owed rent before they could be locked out of an apartment.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the bill would require courts to provide tenants a grace period of three business days to pay their rent after a warrant for removal is posted or a lockout is executed due to nonpayment. It would also require landlords to accept rent payments within this three-day period that are in cash, certified check, or money order or that are made by third parties such as a rental assistance program or charitable organization on behalf of the tenant and to cooperate with a third party that is paying rent on behalf of a tenant.

The bill also would allow a court to limit the amount of money a landlord could receive in attorney’s fees in certain circumstances. When a landlord of a rent-controlled property is entitled to recover attorney’s fees or expenses related to a tenant’s failure to pay rent under a lease agreement, a court would be required to take into consideration all factors associated with each case. Further, it could limit the amount awarded to the landlord to a reasonable fee based on those factors.

Landlords who violate any provision of the bill would be subject to a penalty of up to $500 for each offense.

The Senate passed the measure 34-0 and sent it to the Assembly for further hearings.