An Anniversary in Rent Control

Currently, there is much litigation about rent control, including cases such as this one.  But the subject of rent control is not new.  Instead, in our state courts, it goes back at least as far as the immediate post-World War II era, as reflected by Jamoneau v. Harner, 16 N.J. 500 (1954), which was decided on this date 63 years ago.  There, in an opinion by Justice Heher for a 6-1 majority (Chief Justice Vanderbilt dissented, without an opinion), the Court rebuffed a landlord’s attack on “the constitutional sufficiency of the State Rent Control Act of 1953, c. 216, N.J.S. 2A:42-14 et seq.”

The landlord complained that the statute was invalid because it lacked (1) a declaration of a housing emergency contained in the statute itself (a preamble to the law recited that a “serious public emergency exists in certain areas of this State due to continued shortage of rental housing space”), (2) any mention of such an emergency in the title, and (3) “the actual existence of a housing shortage sufficient to support a legislative declaration of an emergency.”  The Court rejected those contentions.

Justice Heher stated that given the breadth of the police power, “the Legislature has a broad discretion in assessing the need and the means requisite for the protection of the common weal; and fairly debatable questions of policy and procedure are resolved in favor of the power.”  A legislative finding is presumed to be supported by facts “unless facts judicially known or proved preclude that possibility.”

The Legislature’s finding of an emergency in the preamble, “a time-honored legislative prefatory device,” was sufficient.  “There is no constitutional principle or peremptory legislative practice ordaining a declaration of the underlying emergency in the purview of the act.”  Nor did the landlord, who had the heavy burden of overcoming the presumption that a statute is constitutional, show that “the declared housing shortage was and is nonexistent.”

Justice Heher went on to rebuff arguments that the statute violated due process and equal protection, or took private property for public use without just compensation.  An argument by amici that the statute perversely rewarded with rent increases landlords who allowed their expenses to balloon while penalizing landlords who operate more efficiently by denying rent hikes also went nowhere.

This case was a precursor to the “Rent Control Trilogy” of the 1970’s, which in turn were followed by other rent control challenges, continuing through today.  As long as there is rent control, and it is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, challenges to it will likely continue to be brought, despite the difficulties of prevailing in such a case.