Recent sweeping changes to New Jersey’s busiest landlord-tenant court are creating a better and more efficient experience for tenants and landlords alike, after more than two years away due to the COVID pandemic and a now-lifted state moratorium on evictions.
They also might be worth replicating at landlord-tenant courts across New Jersey as courts have transitioned from online to in-person.
Essex County renters at risk of eviction — a majority of whom are Black and brown — used to hover outside the imposing wooden doors of Newark’s dreary, bare courtroom called Room 155, or crowd into fluorescent-lit cubicles, clutching court paperwork and trying to make a deal with landlord attorneys, who are mainly white men dressed in business suits. The groups had little privacy in the chaotic, disorganized space.
“Eviction is depressing to begin with, but to go to a facility where it’s even worse, it made everybody feel unwelcome,” said Jose Ortiz, deputy director of Essex Newark Legal Services.
The state halted evictions in March 2020 and restarted the proceedings online about a year and a half later, working through technological kinks and the backlog of cases that piled up during the moratorium. As part of a pilot program this fall, Essex County alternated between two weeks of eviction court in person and two weeks online. By the end of November, all counties were expected to be back in courthouses.
A space where a tenant must persuade a landlord or judge why she shouldn’t lose her home will never be a pleasant one, but Essex County drastically altered what it could. Now, instead of crowding into a hallway, landlords, tenants and trained mediators sit around tables in light-filled workspaces, part of the gleaming, 150,000-square-foot Essex County Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Building dedicated in June 2021. The $77 million endeavor took 13 months to build.
Most cases end in settlement agreements as opposed to a trial before a judge, so something as simple as a table to lay out ledgers, bank receipts and paperwork can make negotiations go more smoothly.
Visitors pass through an airy atrium, and murals adorn the walls with quotes from King and the words “justice,” “equality” and “freedom” interspersed. Glass doors lead into a cafeteria where court-goers can grab a coffee or sandwich as they wait.
The court complex is still a maze — at least three people stopped to ask how to find “housing court” and “family court, Room 206,” where landlords, tenants and attorneys gather to hear instructions before a judge.
Once participants find their way to the glass-paneled check-in counters, court staff members record their presence and direct them to a room where seven television screens play — in English and Spanish — the Harris announcement, a half-hour recording that explains the court procedure to viewers. Courts started playing the notice in 2001 after a New Jersey Supreme Court decision involving renter Nedra Harris, who was in court without a lawyer and didn’t understand the meaning of legal jargon or her rights under the law.
The check-in step is a small but important addition to Essex County’s process that gives the judge a list of the parties who made it to court. In the old courtroom, renters had one chance to tell the judge they were present, when the presiding judge read through the names on the schedule and assigned them to individual judges.
A small mistake can lead to big consequences. If a tenant didn't get recorded as present, the judge would issue a default judgment, essentially siding with the landlord and allowing him to lock out a tenant around a week later.
Largest evictor is a public agency
One recent day the court was dedicated to cases involving Newark’s largest evictor, the Newark Housing Authority, a public agency that provides subsidized housing to low- and moderate-income families. The first several rows of chairs were filled with lawyers from Ehrlich, Petriello, Gudin, Plaza & Reed P.C., representing the authority. The men flipped through paper packets listing the cases on the docket.
Although the schedule originally included more than 200 cases that day, the list was whittled down after parties worked out deals, or renters paid off what they owed or received rental assistance.
Roughly 50 people, mostly Black, sat in their seats, clenching papers or notebooks. Two men leaned against their walkers, and mothers held fussy babies to their chests. Two sheriffs in dark blue paced back and forth.
Judge Stephen Petrillo called out the names on his list. A man in a vintage Giants jacket and a woman wearing Minnie Mouse ears were among the dozen renters whose cases the Newark Housing Authority lawyers told the judge they would dismiss. The renters politely thanked the judge, wishing him a nice day as they headed for the exit with their faces showing relief.
Petrillo assigned judges to the remaining tenants. After this roll call, landlords and tenants would meet at tables for mediation and try to strike a deal. If they couldn’t, they would travel to a judge’s courtroom for trial.
“I know that that might seem unlikely because if you could agree with the other side, why would you be in the middle of a lawsuit, but you'd be surprised,” Petrillo told those in Room 206. “I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that as human beings we like the certainty of a known outcome. The uncertainty in having a trial and hoping for the best in front of a complete stranger in a black robe goes away.”
A signed settlement agreement also gives those involved more options. While a judge can only evict someone, dismiss the case or delay it, an agreement worked out between the parties could include a repayment plan, a deal to stay for a given number of months, or other compromises.
Robin Dennis, 57, stood out among the renters in the room. She was one of only two tenants who had legal counsel with her.
Dennis slumped over the table, occasionally massaging her temples. Her dentist told her she had an abscessed tooth, and she was feeling achy after getting her flu shot.
She has lived in her brick and white-slatted Newark home for 22 years, one of about a dozen houses the city housing authority manages on her block. During the pandemic, Dennis' daughter lost income from her job at the airport, so they and Dennis' two grandchildren had to divvy up the $970 a month Dennis collected from disability benefits she receives after having a kidney transplant. They couldn’t afford to make her monthly $593 rent payments at the time, and couldn’t get in touch with someone to lower the rent in proportion to her income, she said.
In publicly run affordable housing, tenants' rents are tied to their income — usually requiring a family to pay 30% to 40% of their monthly wage on housing — and are supposed to be adjusted when they increase or lose earnings.
Ray Bola, Dennis’ attorney with Essex Newark Legal Services, sat next to her. They faced her property manager and housing authority attorney Nathan Lam. Notebooks and accounting ledgers were strewn across the table.
Dennis pulled out a handful of money order receipts from past rent payments that Lam carefully compared with the landlord’s records, adding and subtracting on his legal pad and iPhone calculator. Lam didn’t see a record of one of the receipts; Dennis found the actual money order in her lime-green wallet.
They spoke in low, calm voices as they did the math. Dennis could not be evicted for the rent payments she missed through December 2021 under a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, so they only needed to settle up a few recent months. Dennis’ granddaughter with special needs started receiving Social Security, so Dennis' rent was adjusted upward in November from $151 to $387.
Lam wrote out the dates and amounts of payments that Dennis agreed to make going forward. Dennis pulled out her glasses and signed the form. She would not be evicted for having missed payments — if she paid by Nov. 29 at 10 a.m.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Major upgrades help tenants in NJ's busiest eviction court