Op-Ed: Building a watertight dike against a tsunami of evictions

Jane Sarwin | December 22, 2020 | Opinion, Coronavirus in NJ
Two bills currently before the Legislature help relieve both tenants and landlords from the burden of unpaid rent imposed by the pandemic
Jane Sarwin

Struggles with health. Staggering unemployment. Fallout from structural racism. Mounting fears of eviction. The coronavirus upending lives and livelihoods. Many friends and family have died. Many are sick. And many are on the brink of homelessness. But right now, help is around the corner for landlords and tenants alike.

The “People’s Bill” (S-2340), which has passed the Assembly and is currently stalled in the Senate, is championed by Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex). It is meant to forestall a tsunami of evictions caused by the pandemic. It would establish standard repayment terms that are fair to both landlords and to tenants. While landlords will be able to recoup any lost rent, struggling families will be able to spread those payments out over time so that families aren’t forced between paying for groceries or medicines and keeping a roof over their heads.

Working at the intersection of public health and community development for a nonprofit affordable housing developer and property manager, Region Nine Housing Corp., I stand in solidarity with my organization’s mission and vision. We do not evict. Eviction hurts our tenants and our economy. We put people first.  We offer residents safe, secure and stable housing. For more than 50 years, Region Nine has been upending the problem of housing discrimination faced by people with disabilities and people of color. Each of our communities is 100% affordable. We know that landlords need not pursue discriminatory housing policies to be successful. We successfully operate hundreds of units across New Jersey, including in Middlesex, Essex and Hudson counties by prioritizing our residents, employing service coordinators to serve them and being steadfast in property management.

Region Nine unequivocally supports the People’s Bill and stands in staunch opposition to the New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) for the good of all New Jerseyans. Unfortunately, the NJAA, which is doing the bidding of large, corporate landlords, is marshalling intense opposition to the People’s Bill — even after a series of amendments was adopted last month to address many of their concerns.

At the same time, the NJAA is trying to gut the New Jersey Fair Chance in Housing Act (A-1919), which would curb discrimination on the basis of prior criminal backgrounds. They want wealthy landlords to be able to discriminate against Black and brown residents who have had contact with the justice system, just like they want to be able to kick out low-income tenants who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

At Region Nine, we are committed to working with all of our tenants to prevent displacement due to COVID-19, and to reform our tenant-application process to conform with the New Jersey Fair Chance in Housing Act. Preventing mass evictions is also best for the state of New Jersey, our social safety nets and our communities. A recent report compiled by the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimates that between 330,000 and 480,000 New Jersey households are unable to pay rent and are at risk of eviction with a combined rent shortfall in excess of $1 billion. And while landlord-tenant court is currently suspended in New Jersey, landlords are still permitted to file eviction complaints against tenants. There were more than 40,000 eviction filings statewide between March and September.

Another recent report found that residents living in nonprofit-managed affordable homes have lower incidents of COVID-19-related impacts. Now, more than ever, people need to work together toward a common goal of building health, which means ensuring people have a place to call home without the threat of eviction.

If the People’s Bill passes, it will make New Jersey a leader in providing stable housing security for homeowners and renters. It will afford strong protections for all stakeholders, including landlords like us. Alternatively, if it continues to be held up, the immediate threat of mass evictions and homelessness during the worst months of COVID-19 is likely. We can change this story. We can create meaningful transformation by showing generosity and helping those affected by COVID-19 keep a roof over their heads. We urge the New Jersey Senate to act before the holidays and give New Jerseyans the gift of housing stability, regardless of race and socio-economic status. A place to call home is the foundation of good health and economic survival for all.