Eviction filings are roaring back in New Jersey following the December 31st end of a two-year moratorium on removals.

Landlords filed 40,600 eviction cases with the courts over the first five months of the year, according to state figures. That’s more than twice the number filed over the same period in 2021 – 18,550 – though still lagging the pre-pandemic total for January through May 2019, when there were 60,500 cases.

A moratorium on actual removals was put into place by the federal government in 2020, with an eye toward preventing the further spread of COVID-19. The rise in case filings shows that while the pandemic threat has waned, thousands of Garden State residents still face economic jeopardy.

Though New Jersey is allowing evictions to proceed, it continues to offer rental assistance to tenants in arrears, though the need for aid far exceeds the available funds.

Some $750 million in rental assistance has been distributed over the last two years. And while the state has promised an additional $500 million, over 100,000 people are on a waiting list for the state's lottery rental assistance program.

Weekend All Things Considered host Tiffany Hanssen discussed the eviction problem with reporter Ashley Balcerzak, who covers housing for The Record of Bergen County and NorthJersey.com and recently posted a comprehensive update on the issue. Their conversation has been lightly edited for content.

You've reported that low-income tenants in New Jersey who missed rent between March of 2020 and December of last year are protected from eviction if they filed a form with the state. So does that mean that this new explosion in the number of evictions is entirely from folks who've missed payments this year?

It doesn't necessarily mean that. The numbers you're citing are the number of filings. That means that a landlord is starting the court process. A lot of them are probably for folks who missed rent starting this year – this January, this February, this March, etc. But also caught up in these numbers are people who missed rent during the pandemic and their landlord is filing now. So you should definitely check out your protections if you're a renter and have an eviction filing against you to see what assistance might be available.

I do talk to a lot of shelters that are worried that if there is a big tsunami of people ending up there, that they may not be able to handle it.

Ashely Balcerzak, housing reporter, The Record

So where are folks who are evicted ending up? Are we seeing a huge increase in shelter populations?

I do talk to a lot of shelters that are worried that if there is a big tsunami of people ending up there, that they may not be able to handle it. What experts also tell me is, a lot of people don't go straight from being evicted to necessarily going to a shelter. You may see people staying with friends or with family, or living in a car. I mean, you can consider those things homeless, too, but it doesn't mean that the shelters are going to be overwhelmed immediately.

About the state's lottery rental assistance program. It's my understanding that if you need assistance, you're placed on a waiting list to get into a lottery where you may or may not actually get the assistance. Is that how it works?

Yes. This lottery was for a $500 million pot. Unfortunately, at this time, all of that $500 million has been promised to tenants. Now it's still a good idea to apply because maybe we'll get some more money. There is a state budget process right now. We aren't sure what's gonna happen there, but the other reason why a tenant should still apply for that pot specifically is, it can delay their eviction case. A court will adjourn your case for 60 days if they see that you have a pending application for rental assistance.

New Jersey took another interesting step for tenants who've missed their rent. It can be converted into civil debt. Now that was during the pandemic, correct?

This option has always been around, but this kind of took a step away from landlords. Normally, if a tenant misses rent, the landlord has two options, and they can do both: One is filing for eviction and the second is suing in small claims court for the missed rent. The state of New Jersey didn't want a wave of homelessness, a lot of people kicked out of their homes in the middle of this pandemic. So they got rid of that eviction option, but landlords could still sue in small claims court for the back rent and people could have money taken out of their wages or through their banks.

Where can folks get some help navigating this? It's just overwhelming.

It's overwhelming for me, and I cover housing. I always recommend if you need legal assistance, you should contact either Legal Services of New Jersey or Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. I also mentioned New Jersey’s COVID-19 renter assistance site. More resources are listed at my site, NorthJersey.com.

Thank you, Ashley. Appreciate all the info and for staying on top of this.

Of course.