The nearly 57,000 eviction cases filed in New Jersey since the pandemic began 17 months ago are about to be heard and now tenant advocates are concerned that the courts may be moving too fast and using a process that could lead to more evictions.

Last week, the state Supreme Court issued procedures to be used beginning Sept. 1 to settle the mountain of cases that have piled up during the eviction moratorium in effect since March 2020.

The procedures, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in his order that created them, “uphold and balance the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants.” The procedures adopt many of the recommendations from a special committee on landlord-tenant matters.

To resolve as many cases as possible, there are strict consequences for not appearing for a settlement conference or trial, most of which will be conducted virtually. If a landlord does not show up, the case is dismissed. If a tenant fails to appear and the landlord proves he is entitled to relief, the court will enter a default judgment and the landlord will be able to request a warrant of removal.

Some tenant advocates say those rules are likely to hurt more tenants than landlords because most landlords are represented by attorneys, while most renters are not, and the court did not adopt recommendations they sought to try to even the odds. These included listing common defenses tenants might raise on case forms and eliminating from that paperwork a check box that would let tenants agree to an immediate entry of an eviction judgment if they lose.

Had been ‘hoping for a fairer system’

“What they’re doing now is better than what they had before, but it really falls short in some ways that we thought was important and that’s why people are disappointed,” said Michael Noveck at the Newark-based Gibbons law firm. “We were hoping for a fairer system.”

Advocates also said they question the need to rush these processes along, given pending legislation on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk could negate the need for many of these proceedings. Currently, New Jersey’s eviction moratorium remains in place through the end of the year. The bill (S-3691) would lift that as of Sept. 1 except for those of low- or moderate-income who were unable to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and who apply for rental assistance. It would also dismiss all pending eviction actions for nonpayment or habitual late payment of rent or for failing to pay a rent increase since March 1, 2020 against those with incomes of 120% of the area median — $94,500 for a family of three in Bergen County — or less. Instead, the rent owed would be considered a debt which landlords could seek to collect through the courts.

“If the governor signs that bill, many of these cases won’t have to go through the process at all,” said Renee Koubiadis, anti-poverty program director with New Jersey Citizen Action.

The New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) supported that legislation as a “meaningful compromise” to help end the eviction moratorium while still protecting tenants and providing them with rental assistance. The state has already set aside $353 million in rental assistance for low- and moderate-income households and expects to receive an additional $272 million for this purpose from the federal American Rescue Plan. The bill would spend an additional $750 million in federal COVID relief aid on rental or utility assistance to those tenants considered low- to middle-income.

A companion bill (S-3955) that also awaits Murphy’s signature would create a state rental assistance navigation program to help prevent evictions, including by helping tenants who have missed rental payments, or if a tenant doesn’t apply and doesn’t pay, the landlord can apply for aid.

David Brogan, executive director of the apartment association, said the pandemic has also devastated landlords who have not been paid rent and the bill on eviction moratoriums struck a good balance to help both struggling groups.

Why the rush?

“Landlords and tenants are inextricably linked, and this bill takes into account both perspectives while creating a pragmatic pathway out of this pandemic,” he said shortly after final passage of the bills late last month.

Advocates expect Murphy to sign the bill, leading them to question why the court is pushing ahead with settlement conferences that could lead to tenant evictions.

“It’s a little confusing to us that they want to start these conferences right away and start issuing judgments against people who couldn’t be evicted because of the moratorium, whose cases would likely get dismissed because of the bill and whose rent may, at the end of the day, get paid in full anyway,” Noveck said.

The justices want to prevent a repeat of the foreclosure crisis that began in the late 2000s and led to a huge caseload that lingered for years. But Rabner also wrote that the Sept. 1 resumption date for eviction trials could be “adjusted in light of legislation currently awaiting action by the Governor and ongoing collaboration with the Department of Community Affairs.”

As part of the new eviction settlement process, the state is spending $2.4 million to hire and train dozens of landlord-tenant legal specialists to try to mediate disputes and settle cases so they don’t have to go to trial. Tenant advocates say proper training will be important to help individuals who may not be able to make their cases as well as a lawyer representing a landlord can or individuals who may have a disability, not speak English or who may lack the technology for virtual conferences or skills to use it properly.

“We’re starting to turn the corner with the pandemic, but people are still struggling,” Koubiadis said. “They’re juggling to try to get enough hours at work. They’re behind on their utility bills, trying to put food on the table and cover medications and medical costs. If people miss their date and get a judgment against them, that seems unfair.”

A court spokeswoman said mandatory settlement conferences are currently being scheduled.

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