On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Hudson County, LT-1845-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Winkelstein and Yannotti.
Defendant, Igor Aronov, rented an apartment in Jersey City that was later converted to a condominium. He lives there with his wife and child. Plaintiff, Chiara Ottomano, purchased the condominium with the intention of residing in it. Four months after the purchase, she attempted to increase defendant's rent by approximately eighty percent. Defendant refused to pay and plaintiff filed a complaint for possession of the property.
On April 19, 2007, the trial court issued a written opinion and order dismissing plaintiff's complaint. The court found that because defendant was a preconversion tenant, he was protected by N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.31, which limits rent increases to the amount permitted by the rent control ordinance in effect in the municipality where the premises is located. Consequently, the court dismissed plaintiff's complaint, and denied her motion for reconsideration. We affirm.
The material facts are substantially undisputed. Defendant rented a two bedroom apartment, unit 1801, in the "Portofino" building, a twenty-six story apartment building located at 1 Second Street, Jersey City. The initial thirteen month lease term began on January 7, 2004, and ended on February 6, 2005, at a rent of $2000 per month plus a $300 per year amenity fee. Defendant renewed his lease twice for additional one year terms, with the final renewal term to expire on February 6, 2007. His first renewal increased his rent to $2,275 per month, and the subsequent renewal increased it to $2,475 per month and increased the amenity fee to $500 per year. According to the Jersey City Rent Leveling Administrator, because the building was constructed in 1999, it is exempt from the City's rent control ordinance.
In 2005, the owner of the Portofino building converted the apartments into condominiums. On March 29, 2006, plaintiff purchased unit 1801 with the intention of personally occupying it. In July 2006, she served defendant with a notice of rent increase which provided, in part:
3. TERMINATION OF LEASE. Your present lease is terminated as of February 7, 2007[.] You must quit and vacate the property as of that date . . . .
4. Rent. You may rent this property after the date of termination for $4,450.00 per month. . . .
5. OTHER CHANGES IN YOUR LEASE.
Security deposit to be increased to $4,450.00 In accordance with your lease you must provide your landlord with sixty (60) days notice of your intent to renew your lease at the new rent. This notice must be received by your landlord or by this office by November 7, 2006.
After defendant informed plaintiff that he objected to the rent increase and did not intend to vacate at the end of the lease term, plaintiff served defendant with a notice to quit which stated that the lease was terminated "as of March 7, 2007." Defendant responded that a three-year notice to quit was required pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1k and N.J.S.A. 2A:18- 61.2g. On February 20, 2007, plaintiff served defendant with a three-year notice to quit that required him to vacate the premises by March 31, 2010.
Meanwhile, on February 8, 2007, plaintiff sought to evict defendant for nonpayment of rent. In its written decision granting defendant's motion to dismiss, the court found that under the circumstances, plaintiff could not increase defendant's rent by more than that provided by the City's rent control ordinance. Although the court recognized that the City's rent control ordinance did not apply to plaintiff's unit because the ordinance did not apply if the owner of the unit owned fewer than five units, the court reasoned that N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.31 protected a preconversion tenant such as defendant against rent increases above those permitted by the rent control ordinance because the City had a rent control ordinance "in effect." In other words, the court found that in municipalities in which a rent control ordinance was in effect, the ordinance ...