New Jersey's moratorium on evictions is scheduled to lift Saturday after the state prevented most families from being displaced for the past year and nine months with some of the strongest protections in the country as a public health measure to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Landlords will be able to evict low-income tenants who miss or are late with January's rent, though it's unclear how long the court process will take — judges face a backlog of close to 52,000 landlord-tenant cases as of the end of November.
In March 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy halted almost all evictions for any reason — except for cases dealing with imminent threats — to keep families housed even when they lost jobs due to mandated business closures and therefore didn't have the income to pay rent.
The move drastically cut down the number of eviction filings normally seen in courts. In 2019, landlords filed 151,000 cases, compared to 82,000 in 2020 and 42,000 from January through November of 2021.
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But tens of thousands of cases still languished, so Murphy signed a compromise bill in August that had been negotiated with tenant and landlord groups to phase out the eviction moratorium and help landlords recoup their lost rental revenue, while also dealing with the accumulated cases.
The law restarted the court process for cases filed before the pandemic, and allowed landlords to evict families during the pandemic period for a dozen or so reasons, with three exceptions — missing a rent payment, habitually paying rent late, or refusing to pay a rent increase.
Moderate income families would never be evicted for those three reasons if the missed payments took place between March 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2021 — as long as they filled out a form certifying their income and applied for rental assistance. If landlords had already filed a case against them from that time period, the court would dismiss it, and the form would prevent future cases from being filed for missing rent during the protected period.
Low income families making below 80% of their county's median income would be protected from eviction for missing rent for an even longer period — from March 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2021 — if they filled out the required paperwork.
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But renter advocates fear that not enough tenants are aware of these protections and that they don't automatically apply — only 3,100 cases had been dismissed after renters filled out the certification as of the first week of December, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
"We're seeing many renters have been afraid of potentially future consequences if they do claim the protections...or retaliation by their landlord," said Renee Koubiadis, anti-poverty program director for New Jersey Citizen Action. "Others say, 'I'm just going to go quietly,' and then they are homeless because they don't feel like they are worthy of staying, that somehow it's their fault even though we're all in the midst of a pandemic."
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Meanwhile, small landlords struggled to pay their own bills and property taxes as they lost months or even more than a year's worth of rental income. Without the option to replace the nonpaying tenant with someone able to pay rent, landlords were left with few options.
Under the new law, rent owed during the pandemic is converted into civil debt, meaning landlords could sue in civil court to recoup. But many landlords say the process is too costly, and doesn't guarantee they will get paid because the tenants don't have the money.
The major solution for landlords is state and local rental assistance, but payments from the government do not cover the entire rent payment. The state's major fund was set up as a lottery, with applications closing Dec. 15, so not all landlords will receive help. The state slashed a $25 million fund dedicated to small landlords by 60%, and applicants called the program complicated and cumbersome.
“Some small landlords lost their homes, their retirement savings, their kids’ college funds, and their livelihoods," said David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association. "That will lead to a reduction in the overall supply of rental housing and will ultimately exacerbate the existing affordable housing crisis we face in this state."
A handful of smaller municipal or county funds remain open that can cover future payments, as well as current and past-due rent. Undocumented families are eligible to apply.
Tenants paying January rent should be sure to label checks or money transfers with "January 2022" so there is a paper trail that they are paying rent after the eviction protections end.
If tenants are afraid they won't have enough funds to make full rent when the moratorium ends in January, they should first try to talk to their landlords about a repayment schedule. They can also seek help through a county or city rental assistance program or by contacting a local housing nonprofit that may have grants available.
Tenants should also remember that eviction is a process, and renters cannot be thrown out the day after they miss a payment.
"Don't leave your apartment unless there is a warrant of removal from a sheriff on your door," said Amy Albert, an attorney for the Waterfront Project. "The process is slow right now, and many people are not going to be heard in court for months. If you come home to a locked door, that's an illegal eviction. Call 911 and then 211 to have somewhere else to stay for the night if needed."
Legal Services of New Jersey: 1-888-576-5529
Seton Hall Law Center for Social Justice: 973-642-8700.
Volunteer Lawyers for Justice: 973-645-1955
If you have a disability, call Community Health Law Project: 609-392-5553
Low-income families in Atlantic City, East Orange, Trenton or Newark can also receive free legal counsel and social services assistance by calling:
Trenton residents: Central Jersey Legal Services at 609-695-6249
Atlantic City residents: Jewish Family Service of Atlantic County: 609-822-6830
Or on the day of your court date, sign in to Zoom at 8:30 am Monday through Thursday. Meeting ID: 161 090 5099; Password: 627612.
East Orange residents:
ZIP code 07017 call Volunteer Lawyers for Justice at 973-943-4754
ZIP code 07018 call Essex Newark Legal Services at 973-624-4500
Newark residents: Call 973-877-9424 or email at OTLS@ci.newark.nj.us
Form protecting tenants from eviction for missing pandemic payments
Visit covid19.nj.gov/forms/renterform. If tenants don't have access to the internet or need assistance, they can call 609-490-4550 and a representative will help fill the form out for them over the phone.
How do I know if the eviction protections apply to me?
This depends on your income, number of people in your family, and county.
If you make under the 80% of your county's median income, landlords can't file for eviction for missed rent through Dec. 31, 2021.
If you make between 80% and 120% of your county's median income, landlords can't file for eviction for rent that you missed during the pandemic through Aug. 31, 2021.
View the chart below for income thresholds:
Atlantic County: acianj.org/applications/rental-assistance.asp
Bergen County: bergencountycares.org/
Burlington County: njdca.onlinepha.com/
Gloucester County: gloucestercountynj.gov/1224/Emergency-Rental-Assistance
Hamilton Township: arminarm.org/HTA/
Monmouth County: monmouthcountyerap.com
Morris County: njdca.onlinepha.com/
Ocean County: co.ocean.nj.us/OC/frmRERAP.aspx
Passaic County: impactpassaic.com/erap/
Union County: uloucnj.org/rentalreliefprg.aspx
Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ eviction moratorium for renters ends Jan. 1. What to know