On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Camden County, Docket No. LT-400-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lisa and Grall.
Defendant Venisa Bowe appeals from a judgment of possession awarded in favor of plaintiff Pine Valley Court Apartments. Plaintiff sought to remove defendant on the ground of unsanitary conditions, including the presence of debris, trash and exposed food, that attracted rodents and caused roach infestation. The trial judge concluded that plaintiff established conditions warranting removal.
Defendant's rent is subsidized by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. This benefit is "commonly referred to as Section 8 rental assistance, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f." See Hodges v. Sasil Corp., 189 N.J. 210 (2007). The program in which defendant participates is administered by the Clementon Housing Authority.
On April 26, 2004, defendant and her two teenage children were tenants of Pine Valley Court. They lived in apartment B52. Plaintiff issued a notice to cease. In that notice, plaintiff warned defendant that she could be evicted if she did not "take good care of the apartment." Plaintiff alleged that on more than one occasion since September 2003 defendant had violated provisions of her lease requiring her to keep her apartment clean and noted that in October 2003 the Board of Health found dirty appliances, roaches and other pests, and excessive food, dirt and trash scattered over her apartment. In the notice, plaintiff explained that defendant's lease required her to "keep the apartment in a clean and sanitary condition, free of trash, insects, and vermin"; "remove all trash from the apartment and place it in the proper containers provided," and "keep [all appliances] clean." The notice concluded with a warning that any further violations would result in termination of her lease.
The parties executed a new lease dated April 27, 2004, for a month-to-month tenancy of apartment B52 beginning on April 1, 2004. Under that lease defendant had the same obligations to maintain the sanitary conditions referenced in the April 26, 2004 notice to cease.
On December 1, 2004, plaintiff's manager accompanied an exterminator that plaintiff had retained to treat defendant's apartment. She found that defendant had not corrected the conditions referenced in the notice to cease and a notice of termination effective January 5, 2005 was issued. That notice recited the violations listed in the notice to cease.
Plaintiff filed an action for summary dispossess, which was dismissed by consent order on December 6, 2004. In that consent order, the parties agreed to amend the lease to require the landlord to give a minimum of twenty-four "hour advance notice" of examination of the apartment by lenders, insurers, government officials, future tenants or prospective purchasers, but the lease was not amended to require notice of entry by the landlord to inspect, repair or exterminate. The consent order, executed by the attorneys for both parties, did not alter defendant's obligations to maintain the premises.
By complaint dated January 10, 2005, plaintiff again demanded possession, alleging, among other unrelated violations, defendant's continued failure to correct the conditions referenced in the April 26, 2004 notice to cease.
By letter dated February 14, 2005, counsel for defendant first notified plaintiff that defendant was formally requesting "a reasonable accommodation under the federal Fair Housing Act." The letter did not indicate a reason for the request or specify the accommodation sought. On March 1, 2005, plaintiff asked defendant to identify the accommodation requested. By letter dated March 16, 2005, defendant's attorney advised plaintiff that defendant suffered from depression and severe anxiety. The letter further advised that defendant was receiving assistance from two social service agencies that were providing housekeeping assistance and counseling. On that basis, defendant's attorney advised, "we are requesting that the plaintiff accommodate [defendant's] condition by allowing the agencies assisting her to do their work. The summary dispossess action should be continued for a period of time to allow a level of normalcy to be established." Trial was postponed until April 21, 2005.
Plaintiff's manager testified. Apartment B52 was the second apartment defendant occupied at Pine Valley Court. She was moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom apartment in 2003 out of concern that it was too difficult to maintain sanitary conditions in the smaller unit.
A Housing Inspector for Clementon also testified. He inspected defendant's two-bedroom apartment on March 13, 2003, prior to her taking occupancy. He found it to be "very habitable." During a subsequent inspection on October 21, 2003, however, he found trash on the floor and roach infestation. When he inspected the apartment again on October 5, 2004, he found no improvement. According to plaintiff's manager, photographs of defendant's apartment taken in October 2003 accurately reflected the roach ...