On appeal from a Final Administrative Decision of the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.
O'Brien, Skillman and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Landau, J.s.c., (temporarily assigned).
[217 NJSuper Page 594] The Department of Community Development of the City of Passaic (City of Passaic) appeals from a final determination of the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (Commissioner) ordering it to pay relocation assistance benefits to the 13 named petitioners-respondents (respondents) under the "Relocation Assistance Act," N.J.S.A. 20:4-1 et seq. (the Relocation Act), the "Relocation Assistance Law of 1967," N.J.S.A. 52:31B-1 et seq. (the Relocation Law), and N.J.A.C. 5:11-1 et seq.
In January and April 1985 certain owners of apartment buildings located in Passaic were notified by the Superintendent of Housing that they were in violation of the City's Property Maintenance Code, § 5.9 et seq., in that there were tenancies which did not comply with Code minimum floor and/or sleeping area requirements. The letters directed these owners to abate the violations. The building owners then served notices to vacate upon respondents who are tenants in the overcrowded apartments. They were subsequently summoned to court where judgments of possession were entered against them under N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(g). The warrants of removal were stayed pending disposition of the matter.
On various dates between April 16 and May 14, 1985, respondents made written requests to the City of Passaic for relocation assistance benefits. By letters dated April 29 and May 28, 1985, the City of Passaic denied these requests. It based its denial on N.J.A.C. 5:11-2.1(a) which provides that, "[w]henever a . . . unit of local government undertakes a program of . . . code enforcement . . . that causes the displacement of people . . . the unit of local government shall provide relocation payments and assistance to all lawful occupants who are displaced . . ." (Emphasis added) The City of Passaic maintained that the tenancies were illegal since the number of occupants exceeded the Code maximum permitted for the dwelling units, either by reason of square foot or sleeping room minimum standards. The stipulation of facts indicates that for the most part respondents' apartments have been in violation of the City's Property Maintenance Code since the inception of their respective tenancies. Others came into violation because of births or other additions to the living unit. It was stipulated that none of the respondents were aware of the local Code minimums. The landlords were apparently satisfied to continue their tenancies despite such violations until the City took action.
The City of Passaic's denial of relocation assistance benefits was appealed to the Bureau of Housing Services of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. That Bureau denied
the appeal, agreeing with the City's determinations that respondents were not "displaced" individuals within the meaning of N.J.A.C. 5:11-1.2, since they did not "lawfully occupy" the apartments which they were required to vacate. The present respondents were advised of their right to an administrative hearing before the Division of Housing and Development of New Jersey, Department of Community Affairs, and requested such a hearing.
On June 26, 1985, the matters were transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law as contested cases. The A.L.J. apparently consolidated the individual hearing requests into a single matter rather than considering the specific facts on each appeal. At a prehearing conference the parties agreed to enter into a joint stipulation of facts and to submit the matter for summary decision. After the stipulation of facts and briefs were filed the A.L.J. issued an "Initial Decision" on September 12, 1985, which recommended that all respondents should be entitled to relocation assistance benefits from the City of Passaic under the Relocation Act, the Relocation Law and regulations promulgated thereunder. The Commissioner's determination adopted these findings and recommendation of the A.L.J.
On appeal, the City of Passaic contends that the Commissioner's final determination ordering it to provide relocation assistance was arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal. Specifically, it argues that the Commissioner's affirmance, based on a finding that the respondents were "lawful occupants" of their apartments notwithstanding that their tenancies violated the minimum floor and/or sleeping requirements of the City's Property Maintenance Code, was erroneous as a matter of law. Inasmuch as the facts were stipulated, the issue presented on appeal is strictly a legal one. Were the respondents lawful occupants?
We begin by noting that interpretation by an administrative agency of the statute it is responsible to administer is entitled to some weight, with due regard to the agency's
expertise, but it must be consistent with the policy and language of the legislation. Fiola v. N.J. Treas. Dept., 193 N.J. Super. 340, 347 (App.Div.1984).
In McNally v. Middletown Tp., 182 N.J. Super. 622, 625-626 (1982), we recognized a statutory design to establish a uniform policy for fair and equitable treatment of persons displaced, not only by acquisition, condemnation, or voluntary rehabilitation programs, but by building code enforcement activities. As set forth in N.J.S.A. 20:4-2, such policy is to ...