Evictions Surge Expected, but Removals Still On Hold in NJ

Aired July 26, 2020
By Michael Symons

A federal moratorium on evictions expired Friday, raising the prospect that millions of Americans could lose their homes starting in about a month, but New Jersey’s temporary protection against removals remains in effect at least through the start of October.

“It’s important that people understand that,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey. “However, rent continues to be due. And we need immediate action from the Legislature and the governor to help make sure that once that public order about the health emergency is lifted that we don’t have an eviction and foreclosure tsunami.”

The problem, which will also apply to foreclosures, will arrive 60 days after Gov. Phil Murphy lifts the public health emergency order. And make no mistake, Berger said – it will arrive.

“As soon as that order is lifted, there will be a wave of evictions that is going to make what happened in 2008 look like child’s play,” she said, referring to the Great Recession.

The public health emergency was declared March 9 in response to COVID-19. Under state law, such orders expire after 30 days unless renewed, so extensions were signed on April 7, May 6, June 4 and July 2. A decision on an extension, therefore, is due by the end of this week.

New Jersey had the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate in June, 16.6%. The number of jobs in the state is down 611,500 since February, meaning one of every seven jobs have disappeared. On top of that, the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits being provided by the federal government expired this weekend, and it’s unclear if it will be renewed.

A Census Bureau survey conducted the second week of July found one-third of New Jersey renters have little confidence they will make their August rent or have already arranged to defer it. That includes 44% of black and Hispanic renter households and more than half of renters with incomes under $25,000.

The HEROES Act stimulus bill passed the House of Representatives included $100 billion in emergency market rental assistance. That hasn’t been taken up by the Senate, which is working on a separate bill that is expected to become public early this week.

Short of such federal aid, Berger said, the state should enact S2340/A4034/4226, which would allow people to pay back their landlords and mortgages over time through forbearance and rent payment responsibility reductions.

“If we cannot provide direct assistance to everyone who needs it, we can buy time for people,” Berger said. “And that is what the Legislature and the governor must do, and they must do it without delay.”

The state legislation was passed 38-0 by the Senate in April. The Assembly Housing Committee advanced an amended version of it in June, putting it in position for a vote by the full Assembly.

However, the bill wasn’t considered at the four voting sessions since then. The next session is Thursday; the list of bills being considered that day hasn’t yet been released.

Under a July 14 order from the state Supreme Court, a limited amount of landlord/tenant case processing has resumed. Trials can only occur if a tenant dies or in case of emergencies, such as documented violence, criminal activity or health and safety concerns. Settlement conferences can occur, though either party can decline to participate without penalty.

The state judiciary says more than 17,200 landlord/tenant complaints have been docketed since such trials were suspended by the Supreme Court on March 16. An additional 12,500 cases pending at that time are also unresolved. It expects an influx of new complaints now that the CARES Act relief has expired.

“I am extremely concerned, as are housing advocates and community leaders from around the state, about you’re going to see in the coming weeks,” Berger said.

A report issued last week by the Fair Share Housing Network and other advocacy groups projects that around 40% of renter households, around 450,000, will not be able to pay their rent in August. It says those households are about $687 million behind on their rent and that more than 304,000 eviction filings could be on the way in the next four months.

In a typical year, around 150,000 evictions are filed in New Jersey, suggesting that two years' worth of eviction filings could be made in four months' time.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at [email protected]