Facing ‘tsunami’ of evictions, renters to get more legal help

Jon Hurdle | September 17, 2020 | Housing, Coronavirus in NJ
Pandemic Relief Fund provides $2.35 million to two advocacy groups to help tenants

Tens of thousands of renters facing the threat of eviction because of a pandemic-related drop in income will have a better chance of getting legal representation and housing counseling after two advocacy groups received grants totaling $2.35 million from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

On Thursday, the fund plans to  announce that the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey will get almost $1.89 million to increase counseling and outreach services to tenants at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. Another nonprofit, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, will receive $465,000, allowing it to hire four lawyers who will work entirely on eviction issues and train 200 pro bono volunteer lawyers.

Increased legal representation for many low-income renters will allow more of them to be represented in court eviction actions brought by landlords who are already much more likely to have their own lawyers on hand. Many renters are unaware of their rights and are therefore more vulnerable to eviction, advocates say.

The need to help renters navigate the legal system is especially acute during the pandemic because many have lost their jobs and have been unable to pay rent because of the state-ordered shutdowns of businesses. The official unemployment rate is now 16.6%, or about five times its pre-pandemic level.

Mass evictions on horizon?

Even though renters are protected from eviction until two months after the end of the public health emergency, as directed by an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy in March, many fear there will be mass evictions whenever the order is lifted. Almost 35,000 eviction orders have been filed in court since the pandemic began, although Murphy’s order prevents the courts from enforcing them.

Still, some renters are already being ejected from their homes for nonpayment of rent by landlords who are conducting “de facto” evictions by offering to waive rent arrears in return for the tenants’ immediate departure, said Staci Berger, chief executive of the HCDNNJ. In the case of undocumented immigrants, some landlords are threatening to report them to federal immigration officials if they don’t leave, she said.

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, the total number of eviction filings from March to August was 34,197. The numbers for each month during the pandemic are significantly lower than a year ago because of provisions in the federal CARES Act that prevented landlords filing, but those rules ended at the end of July, and advocates expect much higher filings from September onward.

“The tsunami is coming. It has certainly not hit yet but it’s very close to shore,” said Cathy Keenan, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

In July, a consultant’s report for housing advocates forecast that 40% of New Jersey renters, or about 450,000 households, would be unable to pay rent in August. It also predicted that there could be 304,000 evictions over the next four months — a 600% increase over pre-pandemic levels — unless protective measures are taken.

Taking some cases online

In an attempt to ease the backlog of cases, courts in a couple of counties have been holding online settlement conferences in which landlords and tenants attempt to reach agreement on rent arrears, said Keenan of VLJ. She said the court system is planning to hold the conferences in every county in New Jersey.

“The vast majority of tenants never have a lawyer in these cases, so they don’t know what their rights are,” Keenan said. As a result, renters sometimes have defenses that they didn’t know they had or have grounds for buying more time to move out or to repay arrears.

“There’s a whole myriad of positive outcomes that lawyers end up being able to get, either through negotiation or litigation,” she said.

The New Jersey Apartment Association, which represents large landlords, did not respond to a request for comment.

The initiative is designed to avert a flood of evictions whenever the courts resume hearing the cases, Berger said.

Unprecedented housing crisis

Without the new effort, there would be “a housing crisis of epic proportions,” she said. “People talk about the tsunami of foreclosures and evictions that we expect, and this is one way we can help people make sure they know what their rights are,” she said.

Renters that are the most vulnerable are minorities, single female heads of households, domestic violence victims, the chronically ill (including those who have mental illness and addiction) and undocumented immigrants, the fund said in a statement.

First Lady Tammy Murphy, founding chair of the fund, said more advocacy for renters will help them stay in their homes.

“The coronavirus pandemic has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, leaving many families worried about keeping a roof over their heads,” she said in a statement. “We hope this grant will help stave off a pending eviction crisis by helping at-risk tenants and landlords understand their rights and navigate a complex system during these incredibly trying times.”

More help for both renters and homeowners would also be provided by legislation that codifies Murphy’s order and gives both renters and mortgage borrowers a significant period of time to repay arrears. The so-called “people’s bill” was passed by the Assembly in July, and is now in the Senate.

Keeping attention on renters

The new initiative focuses on renters because they have received less assistance than homeowners seeking to negotiate payment terms, said Berger, whose organization coordinated the responses of many nonprofits to the housing crisis unleashed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Even though homeowners were hard-hit by Sandy, renters were hit even harder, and some moved out of state after the hurricane to find somewhere to live because of the scarcity and expense of rental accommodations in New Jersey, she said.

“Lower-income people tend to be renters, and we know that COVID has had a disproportionate impact on those folks, so we are trying to make sure that the folks who need those resources first get them first,” Berger said.