Although New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has issued an indefinite moratorium on evictions, and the housing courts have suspended trials, landlords have still filed more than 15,000 eviction cases in the last three months, Gothamist/WNYC found.
While the number of cases filed between April and June are 55 percent lower than the cases filed during the same time period in 2019, housing attorneys say it’s indicative of what’s to come: A surge of evictions once the moratorium lifts and courts reopen.
“It will explode into a tidal wave if we don't do something,” said Staci Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
“We have people who have been living paycheck to paycheck for years, playing by the rules, going to work, trying to pay their bills, watching their rents go through the roof,” Berger said. “And through no fault of their own, they are slammed with a pandemic.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has left more than a million people unemployed in New Jersey. And while the state has launched a $100 million rental assistance program, housing advocates say that’s not going to be enough (a bill in Congress estimates New Jersey needs $3 billion in rental aid).
Housing advocates are asking lawmakers to pass what they call the "people's bill" that would give tenants up to six months to pay back each month of owed rent. Maria Lopez Nunez, who organizes with the Ironbound Community Corporation, said if tenants can’t get additional money, they should be given more time to pay.
“It's not bailing anyone out,” said Lopez, who is also part of a newly formed housing coalition Compassionate NJ. “It's just trying to give you a chance to dig yourself out of the hole.”
But landlords worry the bill would only shift the burden on them and provide no relief when they have no funds to pay property taxes.
“What we do need is more rental assistance. There needs to be a substantial influx of cash,” said David Brogan executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association that represents owners and vendors of more than 200,000 multi-family homes and apartments. “The answer to the problem is not to shift the burden from one group to another. Rent revenue is the sole source of income for multi-family properties.”
No lock outs
Murphy first issued his moratorium in March, banning anyone from being locked out of their homes due to an eviction or foreclosure proceeding. The moratorium lifts 60 days after the public health emergency ends, currently set to expire in August. But that hasn’t stopped landlords from continuing to file proceedings in court.
In late April, the acting administrator for the courts issued additional directives that allowed the courts to move ahead with settlement proceedings. At least two county courthouses—Mercer and Burlington—are now holding settlement conferences remotely, tenant attorneys say.
Jose Ortiz, deputy legal director for Essex Newark Legal Services, says that’s a problem because most tenants have no legal representation and don’t know their rights under the law. Others may not have access to a web camera and could be agreeing to documents they can’t see.
“The settlement agreement is supposed to be voluntary, but the tenants are not being educated on that,” he said. “There, to me, appears to be serious violations of due process.”
A group of prominent attorneys and housing advocates sent a letter to the New Jersey Judiciary last month outlining ongoing concerns over eviction filings. They wrote that if landlords can keep filing evictions, the courts should make sure tenants are made aware of the moratorium and that settling is voluntary.
The letter also asks the court to require landlords to certify they are allowed to file an eviction. Under the federal CARES Act, any property that receives federal subsidies or is backed by a federal loan can't be a part of an eviction action through July 25.
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Adam Gordon, executive director of Fair Share Housing Center, says there's no easy way for tenants to check whether their property relies on any federal funding unless they live in Section 8 housing or a property administered by a local housing authority.
“A lot of other states have implemented requirements that landlords affirmatively provide a certification that they're not barred from kicking tenants out under the CARES Act. New Jersey has not done that so far,” Gordon said. “And so you really could have an illegally filed eviction action, a settlement conference and someone agreeing to leave that's totally illegal.”
Attorneys say 14 states (New York and New Jersey are not among them) have taken action to ensure filings comply with the law.
In a statement, Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Judiciary, said they met with the authors of the letter and “are exploring different measures to address some of their concerns. It is important to note that evictions are not occurring at this time.”
Brogan said the settlement conferences allow landlords and tenants to agree on a payment plan.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to see mass evictions,” he said. “Tenants are our customers, if we don’t have customers, we can’t operate our buildings.”
The tip of the iceberg
Housing attorneys attribute the drop in overall eviction complaints in part to the moratorium on filings by federally subsidized properties—like public housing authorities—which are banned from doing so until the end of the month.
Nearly 6,000 complaints were filed in landlord-tenant court in June, compared to 12,000 last June. In May, 5,500 complaints were filed, compared to 11,500 in the same month in 2019. By far, the most filings were in Essex County, that is home to Newark, the state’s largest city.
“That is the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Catherine Weiss, who oversees pro bono work for Lowenstein Sandler. “There will be a very, very significant number of evictions if we do not find a way to get assistance to tenants who lost income during the pandemic.”
Records provided by the courts show warrants of removal—the legal document issued by a judge that allows for sheriff’s officers to enforce removing a tenant from a property—are down nearly 90 percent from last year.
Only 75 warrants of removal were issued in June, compared to 4,300 last June. In April, 470 warrants of removal were issued and another 252 in May.
Weiss said those are likely the result of eviction proceedings filed prior to COVID-19 though a few could be from settlement agreements reached during a remote conference hearing if those have already been breached. Either way, they can’t be enforced until the moratorium lifts.
Lopez, from the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, says even though the only legal way to evict tenants is through the courts, some residents are being pressured to leave.
“We're seeing illegal lockouts. Landlords who turn off the water … also landlords who are calling their tenants every single day and demanding that they be paid, putting enormous psychological stress on people,” she said.
A 25-year-old woman said she and her two roommates who have a young child felt pressured to leave their apartment when they couldn’t afford this month’s rent. The woman, who did not want to disclose her full name because her landlord made threats against them, said one of her roommates lost his job during the pandemic and when they couldn’t make rent, the landlord became threatening. They ultimately moved to a hotel and then to a relative’s house.
“We didn't have a stable place to go to,” she said. “It was kind of just a surreal experience, a terrifying experience.”
Housing advocates say the deepening rent crisis is disproportionately impacting Black and Latino communities that already struggle to find affordable housing or face higher rates of foreclosure.
In March and April, 2,400 foreclosures were filed in New Jersey, compared to 4,400 for the same period last year. The “people’s bill,” sponsored by Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-Dist. 34, would also relieve homeowners from paying their mortgages at the end of the moratorium and instead extend the mortgage by the months of missed payments.
Brogan says that relief exempts landlords.
The full Assembly has yet to vote on the measure.