New Jersey residents who missed rent payments due to the pandemic are running out of time to apply for state assistance as the eviction moratorium comes to an end.
Tenants have until December 15th to apply to the state’s rental aid program and will be entered into a lottery to fairly distribute the remaining federal dollars. But individual counties, along with municipalities like Jersey City and Newark, are also distributing funds, though some of those programs are no longer taking applications. Newark’s remains open through January 7th; Jersey City closed its application last month.
“Apply for every place that you can possibly apply for it. But don't leave any stone unturned,” said Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization. “There are going to be plenty of tenants left out in the cold and our focus is to try to minimize the number of tenants that actually end up being put out of their homes.”
The federal government issued more than $800 million in rental assistance to state jurisdictions to cover accumulated rent payments. The U.S. Treasury said any funds that aren’t distributed will be reallocated to entities that are able to more effectively give out the money. Governor Phil Murphy has also set aside an additional $500 million in federal aid to help prevent evictions.
“This problem is not solved simply because a lot of money was put into it. Because while it's a lot, it's not enough,” Shapiro said.
When does the eviction moratorium end?
Under a new law signed by Governor Phil Murphy this year, the moratorium on evictions ended for higher earners — those making between 80-120% of their county’s median income — on August 31st and for lower-income renters, who earn less than 80% of the area median income, on December 31st. The moratoria only applied in cases where the tenant hasn't paid rent or is late on a payment, which are typically the bulk of eviction cases.
Evictions have proceeded and can proceed for issues unrelated to nonpayment such as damaging property, being convicted of certain crimes related to the property or disorderly conduct.
How can tenants protect themselves from eviction?
Even when the eviction bans end, landlords still can’t evict tenants for nonpayment issues tied to the pandemic. For higher earners, they are protected from March 2020 through August 2021. Lower-income renters are protected from March 2020 through December 2021.
But to claim this protection, renters must certify on a form that they couldn’t make payments due to the pandemic and that they applied for rental assistance.
So far, about 13,000 forms have been filled out, the state’s Department of Community Affairs said. Once a renter fills out a certification form, it automatically gets sent to the courts. Renters with an active eviction case will have their cases dismissed about two weeks later, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The form will remain in the database for households without a pending case and be available if a filing is made.
About 2,400 eviction cases have been dismissed through this process, the courts said. That’s likely because not all households who filled out the certification form have an active case.
Though the number of certifications remain lower than housing advocates expected, state officials say about 1,000 households are filling them out a week, up from 500 when the program first launched. DCA said it mailed a flyer in English and Spanish to about 60,000 households with pending eviction cases two months ago. DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said the department will send another round of mail and text alerts to the most recent list of eviction cases.
Court records show more than 84,000 eviction filings have been made since April 2020.
What remedies exist for landlords?
If rental assistance payments don’t cover all the owed rent, landlords can sue for any remaining debt in civil court. The courts system said they do not yet have data tracking how many landlords have filed such cases.
Derek Reed, an attorney and board member of the Property Owners Association in New Jersey, said landlords aren't eager to sue their tenants and are trying to encourage their renters to apply for rental aid.
“The application for the rental assistance can't be completed without the tenants’ cooperation and vice versa. That's really the best way to address this situation from both sides,” he said. He added that some landlords have complained that they can't get their tenants to apply.
What about future rent payments?
The Department of Community Affairs, which is running the state’s rental assistance programs, said it will prioritize using the additional $500 million set aside by Murphy to cover future rent payments after January 1, 2022. DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said those applications are under review and the deadline to apply is December 15th.