Will COVID-19 Trigger an Eviction Tsunami in New Jersey?

With many residents out of work for months and behind on the rent, there are calls for additional state intervention

Even in the best of times, before a global pandemic stopped the world, it was tough to be a renter in New Jersey. The state was the 10th most expensive for renters in 2018, and 2019 was even worse. Out of Reach, a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey puts New Jersey at number seven now. It found that, overall, one-third of New Jersey residents are renters. In Essex County, it’s 56%. In Hudson County, more than two-thirds of residents are renters. The report found Hunterdon, Middlesex and Somerset counties were the most expensive with the monthly market-rate two-bedroom apartment costing an average $1,770.

“A minimum-wage earner has to work 108 hours a week at the newly-raised rate of $11 an hour, so just about three full-time jobs,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Berger ticks off the grim statistics with a matter-of-fact delivery that belies their urgency.

“We have a very low vacancy rate in New Jersey. There are just not a lot of apartments available for people and there are fewer apartments available for the larger-sized families and lower-income folks around the state,” she said.

Berger knows that lurking behind those already dire numbers is a COVID-19 economy eviction time bomb.

“We know that there is a tremendous backlog of evictions that are waiting to be executed against families and individuals who are suffering,” Berger said.

Moratorium on evictions

The number could be as high as 15,000 cases filed since the crisis peaked in the spring. And while Gov. Phil Murphy has issued a moratorium on evictions, there is no moratorium on paying the rent. For thousands of residents now unemployed in the state of emergency, it could be months before they get back to work. The court system has started trying to settle some of the cases by mediation, but those are a small percentage.

“Dealing with this challenging issue will require the cooperation and strategy of all branches of government. It will require people to engage in what I would characterize as out-of-the-box thinking to deal with this huge challenge that’s one of the consequences of this pandemic,” said Hon. Glenn Grant, New Jersey Courts acting administrative director.

The state has dedicated $100 million in rental and mortgage assistance for tenants and landlords, which Grant says will help, but will still leave thousands of others facing a housing reckoning maybe just in time for winter.

“Right now, we don’t solve the problem; we have to just, like, triage. We’re in emergency response. That’s why there’s a People’s Bill that would give renters six months for every month that they’re behind to at least try to dig themselves out of the hole,” said Ironbound Community Corp. Deputy Director Maria Lopez-Nuñez. “That’s an acknowledgement that the state doesn’t have money, that maybe we need to figure it out for ourselves, but we need the state to act to give people that chance,”

Or face the consequences of thousands more of our neighbors out on the street. The People’s Bill is still awaiting a hearing in the Assembly.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.