A study of 40,000 residential eviction proceedings finds the vast majority of renters in New Jersey have no idea about their basic rights, especially in cases where there was a significant problem with their apartment.

According to Paula Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall University, less than half of 1 percent of tenants understand they have legal rights for simple services “like heat in the winter, or running water, or adequate plumbing.”

She said under the law, the implicit promise in every lease in New Jersey is that “the leased premises will be inhabitable, meaning livable, meaning suitable for basic human dwelling.”

What this means, said Franzese, is that “a tenant who is confronted with substandard premises has many opportunities available because of the legal system. Those include withholding rent until such time the landlord corrects the problem.”

She said in most of the cases reviewed, tenants were improperly forced to vacant their apartments because they didn’t understand their protections under the law, and never showed up in court to make their case.

“Plenty of tenants, many of whom are living hand to mouth, can’t even afford the day off from work to appear in court and allow their voices to be heard,” she said. “It tells us that the legal system is letting tenants down, it tells us that the organized bar needs to be doing so much more to provide effective assistance of counsel.”

Franzese added it’s also clear that judges in New Jersey need a better, more modernized centralized computerized system “to determine simply with the click of a button which apartments are notoriously known to be substandard on the basis of housing inspector reports.”

She also said “the irony here is that the New Jersey landlord tenant statute is meant to be very protective of tenants who find themselves living in sub standard or dilapidated housing.”

In the vast majority of cases involving sub-standard housing, government subsidies continue to flow to slumlords, so they have very little incentive to comply with the law, she said.

Franzese says New Jersey has turned a blind eye to the practice of tenant blacklisting, where landlords can buy lists of non-payment-of-rent court proceedings and then refuse to rent to anyone whose name appears on the list, even if they had been justified in withholding the rent.

“It becomes the equivalent of a miserable credit rating, without an opportunity for tenants to clear their names,” she said.

The Seton Hall study focused on eviction proceedings for non-payment of rent in Essex County in 2014.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.