Low-income renters in New Jersey will still be protected from eviction for nonpayment of rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic until the end of 2021 even though the U.S. Supreme Court last week halted the federal government’s latest eviction moratorium.
Qualifying renters in New Jersey are for now shielded from the court’s ruling by a state moratorium on evictions that was imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy in March 2020 and will continue for low- and moderate-income tenants until the end of the year.
Housing advocates condemned the court’s 6-3 ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority in imposing the national ban. They said eviction bans such as New Jersey’s had kept people housed at a time of extreme economic distress and had helped slow the spread of COVID-19 by keeping people in their homes.
They said renters in New Jersey would not immediately be affected by the ending of the federal measure, which national housing groups warned may result in millions of people in other states being evicted.
NJ has ‘some of the strongest protections’
“Our state has had some of the strongest protections that have superseded those of the federal government,” said Sharon Barker, vice president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, in a statement. “New Jersey has established a program for households in need of assistance and we are a leader in the nation getting that aid out as quickly and fairly as possible.”
She said the court’s ruling puts millions of people at risk from the resurgent pandemic because they may be forced to share housing with others if they are evicted, and undermines the efforts of state and local agencies who are distributing rental assistance that comes with the moratorium.
But the trade group’s executive director, David Brogan, said the state has been slow to disburse federal rental assistance to landlords, who have been unable to evict tenants during the pandemic despite a decline of at least 10% in rental income during the pandemic.
Brogan said $1.2 billion in federal rental assistance is available to New Jersey landlords, but he estimated that only 11% of that has been distributed by the Department of Community Affairs so far. Even if the full amount had been paid, it would still only account for about half of the $2.34 billion in rent arrears that the association says landlords are owed.
‘Glacial pace’ of rental assistance
“The glacial pace in the disbursement of rental assistance is placing added strain on both landlords and tenants,” Brogan said in a statement. “The expectation that landlords can continue to meet their financial obligations without rent revenue is completely unreasonable.”
He predicted that any further delay in paying rental assistance to both landlords and tenants will result in small landlords selling their properties and will deter new entrants to the business, which would reduce the availability of housing in the already high-priced New Jersey market.
Tenants seeking rental assistance apply to the DCA through a lottery. If they are selected, they must meet eligibility standards. If those are satisfied, the money is paid to the landlord.
The Department of Community Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
If the CDC’s moratorium had been allowed to stand by the Supreme Court, it would have extended protection for New Jerseyans with 80%-120% of Area Median Income after the state moratorium expires in December, said Beverly Brown Ruggia, Financial Justice Program Director for New Jersey Citizen Action, which advocates for economic and racial justice.
Rental assistance is one of a number of measures that are designed to prevent a surge in evictions when New Jersey’s moratorium is lifted. Other safeguards are included in a new law (S-3691) that converts rental debt accrued during the pandemic into civil debt; prevents that debt being used to evict a tenant; protects credit records, and creates an Office of Eviction Prevention.
Almost 51,000 eviction filings were made by landlords in New Jersey courts between August 2020 and the end of July, according to court data, fueling earlier predictions by housing advocates of an eviction “tsunami” when the state ban ends. Landlords are permitted to make the filings even though courts may not issue eviction orders while the ban is in place.
In July, Essex County saw by far the largest number of filings, 944, followed by Middlesex County, with 461, the data shows.
“We hope that there will not be a large tsunami of evictions now that there is significant additional rental and utility assistance, if the state gets money out to people before the end of 2021,” said Renee Koubiadis, Anti-Poverty Program Director for Citizen Action New Jersey.
Renters who fear eviction should determine whether they are eligible for rental assistance by going to https://covid19.nj.gov/pages/renter, said Nina Rainiero, a spokeswoman for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. Those who are ineligible can get advice from a certified housing counselor by going to housinghelpnj.org, she said.