Op-Ed: ‘People’s Bill’ would keep the state’s residents home and safe

‘Housing insecurity continues to be one of the greatest threats to the health and wellbeing of New Jerseyans’
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It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into crisis. New Jersey has been hit as hard as any place with massive loss of life and economic devastation in these past 12 months. Although more than five million people have been vaccinated in New Jersey, we are not past the health or the economic crises. Housing insecurity continues to be one of the greatest threats to the health and wellbeing of New Jerseyans. The Compassionate New Jersey Coalition has consistently advocated for the “People’s Bill” (A-4034/S-2340), which is based on several fundamental principles needed to provide strong housing protections throughout the crisis. One year later, although through an evolved lens, we stand firmly behind these core principles. No renter or homeowner should:

  • lose their home through eviction or foreclosure,
  • have their credit damaged or
  • lose their ability to find a home in the future because of the pandemic

Developed in collaboration with the bill’s sponsors, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex) and Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and housing advocates, the “People’s Bill,” provides an appropriately holistic approach to the deep, and racially disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens evictions and foreclosures. Thankfully, since the bill was first crafted, the federal government has provided additional funding to support struggling families. Unfortunately, even the additional funds allocated for states in the CARES Act and the RESCUE Act will not reach everyone. For people who do not happen to receive the limited federal funds available, it is unacceptable for them to face immediate eviction or foreclosure due to a pandemic that was no fault of their own. New Jersey needs a comprehensive solution that covers everyone — combining targeting funding to those with the greatest need with universal protections to reflect the evolution of the crisis since last year.

We know that the COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and undocumented residents in the state. It is critical that relief efforts are applied with an emphasis on protecting those most hurt by the pandemic and that funds are distributed based on the most impacted communities. The disbursement of funds must include an aggressive and an affirmative marketing plan to ensure proper engagement with disproportionately impacted communities.

New Jersey was still struggling to recover from the 2008 foreclosure and Superstorm Sandy disasters when the coronavirus spread to the U.S. last year. The last thing the state needs is to allow another explosion of foreclosures to crush more families. In addition to financial hardships caused by the pandemic, homeowners are still going to have tax and upkeep obligations for their properties. We must implement uniform mortgage forbearance to ensure fair and reasonable repayment plans in order to prevent a new wave of foreclosures. Homeowner protections should essentially mirror the Sandy foreclosure bill — in which the life of a mortgage is extended for up to two years of missed payments. As in the Sandy crisis, homeowners must be given forbearance, which adds arrears to the end of the mortgage term with no lump sum payment due at any point. This is the only kind of forbearance that will help homeowners, including multi-family homeowners who have tenants, avoid foreclosure.

Federal funds will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of New Jersey renters by helping them pay arrears in rent. From this federal relief, landlords could receive up to 18 months of back rent. However, these funds will not be enough to help the many more who need rental assistance. We are confident if the state appropriated rental assistance funds, we could have fewer New Jerseyans dealing with elongated repayment plans, but we will never be able to provide enough funds to help everyone in need. That is why we must have eviction protections in place for renters who do not receive rental relief. These protections must cover everyone and be retroactive to the start of the emergency (March 9, 2020) and through the end of the emergency plus at least six months. Nobody should ever be evicted retroactively for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic after the moratorium ends.

Rent gouging, negative credit reporting

Anti-rent gouging is another key policy piece needed to end the housing crisis caused by the pandemic. The Legislature must prohibit rent increases after the end of the eviction moratorium period that will inevitably lead to more evictions and displacement of tenants who are still struggling to get back on their feet. This will be critical to ensure gentrification does not become a post-pandemic crisis.

Finally, the role of credit reporting in the American economy impacts almost every aspect of our lives. Credit score not only affects the ability to get a loan to buy a car or home, or to get a credit card, it is also now central to the vetting process for renting an apartment, getting a job and credit can determine rates for car insurance. Access to critical basic needs can be completely denied without good credit. It is essential to give people the ability to manage their finances during a crisis without fear of negative credit reporting, which will impact their lives far beyond the state of emergency. Credit reporting protections must be in place for people who face lasting COVID-19 financial hardship for up to 18 months after the end of the public health emergency. Additionally, the state must ban any “blacklisting” of any tenant or homeowner who has not been able to make rent or mortgage payments because of pandemic-related economic hardships. This provision must be mandatory and self-executing without renters or homeowners having to request exemptions.

Although the terms and specifics of how the state crafts a COVID-19 housing policy must reflect the status of the crisis one year later, they must also be based on the principles upon which the “People’s Bill” was written. Despite relief available through federal and state assistance, there will be people who will remain vulnerable to housing insecurity. Any policy adopted must prevent them from losing their homes. Protecting renters and homeowners from eviction or foreclosure, damaged credit and from being denied housing is the just, compassionate and practical pathway forward. New Jersey will only recover fully from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, if all New Jerseyans are able to stay safe at home. 

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