Help finally on the way for N.J. renters as state announces new $353M relief fund

Published March 18, 2021
By Sophie Nieto-Munoz

A highly anticipated and desperately needed $353 million rental relief fund will open up to New Jersey renters who haven’t been able to make payments over the last year after the coronavirus pandemic upended their lives.

The fund will open for applications on March 22 at 9 a.m. on the Department of Community Affairs website. The program is not first come, first serve, and will remain open until “an adequate number of people have submitted their applications,” said Lt. Gov. Shiela Oliver at the press conference in Union City Tuesday afternoon.

Applicants can seek 12 months of rental assistance, paying for rent arrears incurred since March 13, 2020, and potentially for future rent payments, the department said in a statement. Eligible residents must be 18 or older, qualify for unemployment or seen a loss in income relating to the coronavirus pandemic, show a risk of housing instability, and have a household income below 80% of the median area income.

The fund could help 30,000 households, but that’s a “conservative estimate” and it “could be much more than that,” said spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.

“This pandemic has created a crisis for so many of our fellow New Jerseyans who are struggling to pay their rent because they’ve lost jobs or aren’t bringing home as much money as they once did,” said Oliver, who also serves as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.

“This is the toughest times of our life that we all face right now, and the money that’s being given is being well spent to keep people in their home, and I think sometimes what’s taken for granted is housing is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, and also Union City Mayor.

The first payments could come as soon as May, and are made directly to the landlord. The department is also encouraging landlords to agree to a payment plan for rent arrears not covered by the assistance and to commit to not filing for eviction for non-payment of rent.

While renters are protected by the current eviction moratorium, which prevents landlords from locking tenants out or shutting off utilities through at least mid-May, landlords can still file for eviction over nonpayment of rent. The courts have not yet reopened for landlord-tenant court, but more than 60,000 evictions have been filed.

The $353 million is the second round of the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program and is more than triple the first pot of money available that was available to renters in August. It is federally funded through the second stimulus package signed in late December 2020.

More than 15,000 households received help from the first round, a small percentage of the more than 60,000 applicants vying for the $100 million rental relief fund. But the department said it was able to help 7,000 more homes than origially expected with another $91.75 million allocated.

David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association, said he was encouraged to see the state opening another rental assistance program, which will help landlords who have gone a year without revenue, but called on Gov. Phil Murphy to create a middle-class rental assistance program.

“Decision makers need to recognize that failing to provide necessary rental assistance to those in need will have a domino effect on tenants, landlords, homeowners, municipalities and the state,” Brogan said. “The multifamily industry pays over a billion dollars a year in property taxes. Without rent revenue from either tenants or the government, there will be a massive property tax shift onto homeowners, which no one wants.”

Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey President Staci Berger also said while New Jersey is taking “an enormous step in the right direction ... we need long-term solutions, like the People’s Bill, to keep homeowners and renters safely housed when the public health emergency is lifted.”

Roughly 30% of the first round of funds were allocated to homeless families, but there’s no distinction made for that in this round, Ryan said.

Oliver urged anyone, including those who think they may not be eligible, to apply for the rental relief.

Every three months, the household will be reviewed to determine if the assistance is still needed, and if not, will be directed to other families. Renters who have previously received assistance in the first round can apply again.

The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which provides funding for affordable housing, has also expanded its programs to include renter and pre-foreclosure housing. Counseling is also available for renters who need to approach their landlord for help.