NJ aggressively protected renters from eviction during pandemic. Hurdles still cropped up

New Jersey adopted some of the strongest renter protections in the nation to stave off a mass wave of homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If low- and middle-income families fill out a form and apply for rental aid, they can't be evicted for having missed rent payments between March 2020 and August 2021. While California passed a similar measure, most states did not go so far as to make most evictions off-limits at the height of the pandemic.

And New Jersey's eviction moratorium keeps the poorest in the state housed through the end of the year, one of the longest moratoriums in the country, while a federal eviction ban faced court challenges and was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At first blush, it appears New Jersey made significant progress fighting the predicted tsunami of pandemic-induced evictions and accompanying homelessness as COVID lockdowns were instituted and people lost jobs. But there have been hurdles and roadblocks.

For instance, only a fraction of those facing eviction have filled out the paperwork that would protect them. Even as New Jersey’s state rent relief program is paying landlords at one of the fastest rates in the country, counties and towns have been slow to release the federal aid they've received to help renters. And some tenants have been illegally evicted during the pandemic.

Some tenant advocates worry that New Jersey won't have enough money to help renters avoid eviction when the moratorium on evictions lifts Jan. 1. And while plenty of aid is available now to help renters, many people who qualify find it hard to find affordable housing in a tight market —as well as landlords willing to accept the aid.

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New Jersey not only responded to the immediate crises wrought by COVID-19. The state also passed short-term initiatives that tenant advocates had been pushing for years — a "right to counsel" pilot program that provides attorneys to renters facing eviction in three cities, and a measure to keep private certain eviction records from March 9, 2020 to Aug. 3, 2021, to ensure tenants don’t wind up on blacklists that can make it more difficult to secure a future rental.

Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that financial institutions across the state would offer mortgage forbearance — letting homeowners hold off on mortgage payments for up to 90 days — and the state would not allow families to be removed from their homes due to foreclosure until after Nov. 15, 2021. A multimillion dollar fund for homeowners has yet to be launched.

Only a fraction of those facing eviction filed the form that protects them

New Jersey’s courts face a backlog of nearly 55,000 pending eviction cases as of Nov. 3, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Meanwhile, 10,988 people turned in the form that dismisses their court cases and protects them from being evicted in the future, according to Department of Community Affairs data as of Nov. 9.

And the courts report only 1,939 cases dismissed as a result of filing a certification through the first week of November. Renters are encouraged to fill out the form even if they don't have a pending eviction case, which can explain the mismatch in numbers.

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Every tenant’s case may not be eligible for dismissal. Some tenants may make too much money, they may have missed rent payments before the pandemic began, or a landlord may have moved to evict them for a reason other than not paying rent. But the participation is much lower than experts expected.

“I’m not sure the process is clear to folks,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “We need landlords to do the right thing and make sure their tenants are applying.”

The DCA mailed instructions about the form to landlords, and is working with six community groups on a public outreach campaign for tenants, trying to reach them by posting on social media, by hosting events and by canvassing local businesses, churches, schools and libraries.

Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, said he has heard disturbing stories from attorneys contacted by renters after their court appearances.

“We’re hearing that tenants that would obviously be eligible for these protections, but didn’t know about the form, aren’t being told to do that by a mediator or judge,” Shapiro said. “Every tenant should be informed of their right to do so.”

Will NJ have enough assistance for when the moratorium ends?

If a tenant misses a rent payment after Jan. 1, 2022, his or her landlord can file for eviction and the tenant could be removed from the home.

New Jersey is passing out more than $1 billion in rental assistance coming from different federal and state pots. While more than $600 million from the feds covers past due payments, state lawmakers initially aimed to pass a bill, S3691, to provide an extra $750 million to cover future rent payments.

Last minute amendments to the bill lowered the amount to $500 million, and allowed the new “Eviction Protection Program” to be used for past and current rent payments. Some advocates worry the money will run out too soon, and should be prioritized for payments in January 2022 and later — when tenants can actually be evicted for not paying.

“Getting back into the economy is not an easy thing once you’ve lost your job and COVID is still around,” Shapiro said. “They are still in trouble. We don’t want to have done all this work to just push the eviction tsunami to next year. The goal is to prevent as many evictions from happening as possible.”

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Next year, other deadlines loom as social safety net protections expire or shrink. While extra $300 weekly unemployment payments ended this fall, those on state extended benefits may use up the last of their jobless benefits. A boost to food stamp benefits will expire. Hundreds of thousands could lose Medicaid coverage as continuous coverage ends.

New Jersey paid close to $137 million for future rent payments to almost 34,000 families as of Oct. 7, according to the Department of Community Affairs. But since payments are doled out a few days before next month's rent is due, DCA has not yet issued payments for January 2022, or other future months not protected under the moratorium.

In all, the state has passed out close to $500 million, helping 15,000 families last year and close to 46,000 families this year.

Families most in need getting help

Densely packed, diverse cities received the bulk of the state’s funds paid to offset lost rent payments, according to a NorthJersey.com analysis of state data between August 2020 and September 2021.

New Jersey also ranks fifth fastest in the nation for passing out rental assistance to landlords in need. But while the large state program is doling out checks quickly, more than a dozen counties and cities passed out less than a third of the federal rent aid they received and risk having the U.S. Treasury Department reclaim millions of dollars.

“Some small landlords lost their homes, their retirement savings, their kids’ college funds, and their livelihoods, yet there was very little attention being paid to that aspect of the problem and help for them was slow in coming,” said David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association.

Brogan predicts that many small landlords “who had their lives turned upside down” may leave the business, which could exacerbate New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis.

Debt collection cases rising

Even during the moratorium on evictions, New Jersey landlords have still had the option to sue in small claims court when a tenant doesn’t pay rent. But it often doesn’t make sense financially, since many renters don’t have the funds to pay them back, and landlords spend more on legal fees. But since S3691 transformed rent owed into “civil debt,” this became the sole legal option landlords had to take against most renters, so these cases became more common, lawyers say.

“We’re seeing widespread filing of these cases, and landlords aren’t giving the system time to process the rental assistance applications,” said Rebecca Symes, executive director of the Jersey City-based Waterfront Project, which represents low-income families.

“We’re seeing in so many of these cases that after landlords file in court, request all these legal fees on top of it, the tenant gets approved for rental assistance, but not enough to cover these extra costs,” Symes said. “It can also negatively impact a client’s credit report. We wish there was some kind of grace period to have rent relief applications processed.”

Tenants were illegally evicted

Despite New Jersey’s moratoriums, some tenants have been illegally evicted during the pandemic. NorthJersey.com spoke to families whose landlords cut off their utilities and changed the locks, while others tried to circumvent protections by accusing their tenants of being squatters and filing for an “order of ejectment.”

No tenant in New Jersey can ever be kicked out of their home without a court order issued by a judge. If a landlord tries to, a renter should call the police. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued enhanced law enforcement guidance to ensure police knew how to handle these situations, and hosted a town hall to bring attention to the issue.

It's unclear how often these lockouts occurred. Some 25 renters filed written complaints with the Attorney General's Office, but others may have contacted local law enforcement, and still others didn't know they had options.

Keeping eviction records private a ‘step in the right direction’

Eviction records for nonpayment of rent cases filed between March 9, 2020 and Aug. 3, 2021 will be kept confidential after Murphy signed bill A4463. Landlord-tenant filings are normally available to the public, and renters with eviction records often end up on “blacklists” when landlords run credit checks, making it difficult to secure future housing. Often, these checks catch anyone with any filing, regardless of whether a renter wins the case and is ultimately not evicted.

The law “is a step in the right direction,” said the Rev. Jessica Lambert, a leader with New Jersey Together and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jersey City. “But it will be critical for the courts or the Legislature to stop the practice of tenant blacklisting for all actions that don't result in an actual eviction."

Shapiro with the New Jersey Tenants Organization said that keeping eviction histories private could cut down on housing discrimination, because it would take away an excuse landlords could use to reject a tenant.

While New Jersey halted most court proceedings, the Garden State did allow landlords to submit filings to the court, while other states, including Minnesota and Washington, banned filings through June 30, 2021, according to Princeton’s Eviction Lab.

“People may not understand the process and think as soon as a landlord files something with the court, they have to move out,” said Peter Hepburn, analyst with the Eviction Lab. “Shutting down that first step could have prevented families from potentially being displaced.”

Legal services expanded

While landlords have attorneys helping them in 90% of eviction cases, renters are represented about 10% of the time. Providing tenants with legal help has shown to prevent eviction — in New York City, 86% of the renters represented stayed in their homes.

New Jersey launched a one-year, $1.4 million pilot program to represent low-income families facing eviction in Atlantic City, East Orange and Trenton. The state hopes to help 500 to 1,000 families with legal services and assist between 250 and 500 families to secure social services help.

Lawmakers also set aside $2 million to expand legal clinics at Seton Hall Law School and Rutgers Law School for law students and recent graduates to provide legal help to low- and moderate-income tenants.

“Hopefully we’re building a framework for expanded access to legal services in the future,” Symes said. “A lot of the housing insecurity we’re seeing is getting worse, as rents go up and wages remain stagnant. I’m hopeful that once we build it, we won’t dismantle it.”

Unprecedented funds but lack of supply

New Jersey and other states are collecting an unprecedented amount of federal dollars to cut homelessness — from new Section 8 vouchers to temporary “rapid rehousing” and rental assistance.

But families looking for homes report discrimination by landlords who openly reject public assistance — which is against the law — and that landlords have turned applicants down because of their credit or eviction history.

Others just aren’t finding apartments. New Jersey’s rental stock remains low as low-income tenants are protected from eviction, or other landlords sell their homes or raise their rents.

Homeowner help harder to find

New Jersey didn’t allow families to be physically removed from homes they lost in foreclosure through Nov. 15.

Lenders could still file foreclosure cases in court, though numbers dwindled. In 2019, the courts reported more than 21,000 filings, 10,000 cases in 2020 and almost 8,700 cases this year through Nov. 9.

Murphy announced a voluntary agreement with more than 100 financial institutions in New Jersey to offer families mortgage forbearance — reducing or pausing payments. But there was no requirement that allowed families to tack on the unpaid amount to the end of their mortgages, so families could still face a large dollar amount owed when the forbearance period is over. A bill to require that the paused payments be moved to the end of the mortgage lagged in the Legislature.

And while assistance is available to homeowners who rent out their properties, New Jersey has yet to launch a $325 million homeowner assistance fund allocated by the federal government in March. The state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which runs the program, said it is waiting for the federal government to approve its plan.

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: balcerzaka@northjersey.com

Twitter: @abalcerzak

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ protected renters from eviction amid COVID. Hurdles persisted