(BELLEVILLE) — Amid continued concern about foreclosures in New Jersey, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo on Tuesday announced he’s introduced legislation that would allow towns to let tenants remain in owner-occupied dwellings that are safely but — because of zoning codes — illegally occupied.

Caputo said the bill (A-2248) could help some homeowners avoid foreclosures.

“Because of the current economic climate and high rates of unemployment, New Jersey tenants and homeowners are still struggling to make ends meet,” said Caputo (D-Essex). “New residential foreclosures in 2009 rose 29 percent over the previous year. That’s a scary figure, so anything we can do to keep families living in a stable situation is the right approach.”

The bill would provide that, if a municipality adopts an ordinance authorizing it, a tenant in an illegal occupancy may not be evicted for a zoning or housing code violation, as long as the violation does not affect the tenant’s health or safety. This would allow struggling homeowners with tenants to keep receiving rental income as they remedy the problem.

“This would help out tenant and homeowner alike,” Caputo said. “As long as their health and safety aren’t at risk, let’s keep people in their homes and stabilize neighborhoods until the economy turns around. This is the compassionate thing to do. I don’t want to see people thrown onto the street in this economy when another option exists.”

If enacted, the bill would allow tenants — or landlords facing foreclosure — to request a stay of eviction proceedings to remedy a code violation. A Superior Court judge would have to stay the proceedings if removal of the tenant would cause financial hardship to the tenant or landlord.

To aid the Superior Court in enforcing the new law, this bill would require the clerk of a municipality adopting an ordinance to forward a copy of the ordinance to the assignment judge for the vicinage.

The legislation would require a municipal ordinance that would expire when the foreclosure rates for the state — a lagging economic indicator — decline for eight consecutive quarters.

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