New anti-eviction program launching in three cities

The initiative comes a week before the eviction moratorium will lift for some families

By: - August 26, 2021 7:00 am

New Jersey courts have started to hear the thousands of eviction cases that had been stalled because of the pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A new anti-eviction initiative is launching in three cities as the state prepares to roll back pandemic-era eviction protections for some families beginning next week.

The program — to be launched in Atlantic City, East Orange, and Trenton – has been in the works since before the coronavirus pandemic caused housing advocates to sound the alarm about an impending “tsunami of evictions.”

“The importance of this is greater now more than ever,” said Sharon Barker, vice president of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey. “More people need help now, so it’s important to have a place like this that’s a one-stop shop.”

And it’s a critical time for New Jersey residents who will see some protections that have been keeping them in their homes since April 2020 expire. Millions of New Jerseyans fell behind on rent during the pandemic, and more than 70,000 tenants have had evictions filed against them for nonpayment of rent or habitually late payments.

The Department of Community Affairs announced the program Wednesday, saying it will pilot for one year. It will provide low-income tenants at risk of facing eviction with legal services and a social safety net, the agency said.

The DCA did not say what’s being used to fund the program, or how much money is going to each municipality.

The cities were chosen based on the number of their eviction filings, shelter and homelessness rates, local poverty levels, and whether they have existing support systems, like Atlantic City Rescue Mission or Catholic Charities in Trenton. The program also has the potential to expand statewide after the pilot period, the agency said.

“They chose three communities that have great support systems and that really need it. As a nonprofit, we hope that this can be replicated so more people can understand their rights and get what they need,” Barker said.

She said the program would offer tenants one place to give them a wide range of information, like application deadlines, eligibility requirements, and local food shelter details, plus help on filling out paperwork.

“It’s confusing for people who never had to seek that type of help before to identify where to go, so having a program to give them all those answers is a great idea,” she said.

The DCA worked with housing groups and nonprofits across the state for input in different eviction programs, Barker said, an approach that makes the programs more accessible.

“I think you’ll see more happening and growing. We’re the ones on the streets and in the neighborhoods so we can reach out to the people who need help,” she said.

What N.J. is already doing to fend off evictions

Since the start of the pandemic, the DCA has set up programs intended to help tenants who cannot afford to pay rent. The COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program provided rent relief to low- and moderate-income households, helped 15,000 families in its first round and is now in its second phase.

Nationwide, states have been slow to dole out rental assistance. While New Jersey gave out just 11% of funds in July, the state still is in the top ten for distributing rental funds.

The department continues receiving applications for housing assistance, and the lottery is now done on a daily basis.

With the eviction moratorium’s end date getting closer — Dec. 31 for families who make less than 80% of their area median income — the courts have already laid out the process for dealing with the backlog of evictions.

Under a law signed by Murphy in August, low- and middle-income tenants can have their eviction cases dismissed, and no new filings can be made for rent missed during the “protected period.”

Renters must certify their loss of income and unpaid rent under penalty of perjury and provide a copy of it to their landlord and the courts. The accumulated rent arrearages will turn into civil debt, and landlords can fight for that in civil court.

New Jersey courts said in early August eviction cases would be adjourned for 60 days while rental assistance applications are processed.

Renters who face eviction for other reasons, like disorderly conduct or assaulting neighbors, will see their proceedings resume.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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