Millions of federal dollars are pouring into New Jersey to help pay for a mountain of rent arrears that have accrued during more than a year of pandemic, but landlords say it won’t be enough to make them whole. And housing advocates predict the money will not stop a wave of evictions whenever Gov. Phil Murphy lifts his ban on ejection for nonpayment of rent.
The New Jersey Apartment Association, which represents mostly large landlords, estimates that its members and other landlords across the state have lost around $2 billion in rent since COVID-19 began to devastate the economy. What’s more, it predicts that several rounds of federal assistance will pay for only about half of the total.
The association hopes the state will step in to help whittle down the remaining deficit, which landlords have had to live with since an executive order last March stopped them evicting delinquent tenants until two months after the governor declares the end of the public health emergency.
Illegal evictions already ongoing
Despite the ban, some tenants are already being illegally evicted, housing advocates say, and they repeated earlier predictions of thousands more when the moratorium ends and landlords are once again free to evict those who can’t or won’t pay. The campaigners are also afraid landlords will attempt to offset a year of losses by charging higher rent to new occupants.
“Even if the state government does everything right and distributes all the federal money quickly, there will still be a billion dollars in rent that landlords are unable to collect,” said Staci Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. “They will evict people as soon as possible so they can try to collect that money by raising rents and moving other people in. And in a very tight real estate market, they will be able to do that.”
Landlords made about 62,000 eviction filings with the state court system between March 2020 and the end of February this year, according to court data. While the moratorium prevents courts issuing eviction orders for now, it doesn’t stop the filings, which are likely to swell by “tens or hundreds of thousands more” when the ban is lifted, Berger predicted.
In the first two phases of the COVID-19 emergency rental assistance program, the federal government has provided $444.7 million in emergency rental assistance to New Jersey, according to the Department of Community Affairs, which is allocating the money. The first phase paid $91 million in rental assistance to about 15,000 families. Another $235 million in federal funds was paid directly to counties, as well as to two cities — Jersey City and Newark.
David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association, said he’s expecting about another $400 million in rental assistance from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that became effective in March.
Billion-dollar drop in the bucket
But even if federal rental assistance eventually comes to $1 billion, that wouldn’t come close to erasing the losses that New Jersey landlords have suffered over the past year, Brogan said.
“The small landlords are still holding on by a thread, while the large landlords are seeing greater and greater losses,” he said. “It was fantastic that the federal government finally woke up and saw that this was necessary, but I think there are going to be some write-offs.”
He said landlords have seen reductions in rental income of up to 30% during the pandemic, and that some tenants have taken advantage of the evictions ban by withholding rent even though they can afford to pay.
Brogan called for an increase in the income limit for receiving the federal money from the current 80% of area median income to 120%, and for the state to provide some of its own money in addition to the federal funds.
“There are a lot of people out there who have lost jobs and are starting to get back on their feet, but they still have rent arrearages,” he said. “They do need help.”
The federal money is paid via the state to landlords after tenants have shown that they qualify for unemployment benefit, have experienced financial hardship because of COVID-19, are at risk of becoming homeless or have a household income no greater than 80% of area median income.
Playing lottery for rent relief
But even qualified households will only receive rental relief if they are selected in a Department of Community Affairs lottery that’s designed to allocate scarce funds. “Lottery draws will take place until all funds have been expended,” said Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the DCA.
Berger said the lottery system shows that “there will not be enough money for everyone.” She predicted that some landlords will have to settle for less than the whole amount they are owed, but argued that tenants are in even worse shape.
“Mr. Brogan has somehow framed this as his corporate landlords being the victims here,” she said. “The real victims are the people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.”
Berger urged state lawmakers to support the so-called People’s Bill (A-4034/S-2340), which would give pandemic-hit tenants as much as 2 1/2 years to repay rent arrears and prevent them from being evicted after the moratorium ends. The bill, which has been stalled in the Senate since passing the Assembly in July last year, is fiercely opposed by the Apartment Association, which says landlords should not be expected to carry tenants’ debt for an extended period. It predicts that the measure would lead to a hike in residential property taxes because state revenue from apartment buildings will drop if their operating income declines in response to the bill’s provisions on arrears.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal this week directed law enforcement to crack down on illegal evictions by investigating reports that people are being turned out of their homes, issuing warnings to any landlords who are flouting Murphy’s eviction ban and helping evicted residents back into their homes. Grewal also authorized officers to issue complaints against any landlord who ignores warnings.
“The actions of landlords who have locked out tenants or cut their utilities during this global health emergency are not just illegal, they’re inhumane,” said Grewal, in response to complaints from tenants and advocacy groups.
“Some landlords have taken matters into their own hands,” he said during an online townhall meeting. “They know that there is no legal avenue for eviction right now, and so in the most egregious of examples, some unscrupulous landlords have changed locks on tenants or shut off utilities. All this has left some residents unable to access their property or belongings, or worse, rendered many homeless.”