New Jersey renters, homeowners and landlords negatively affected by the COVID pandemic have some new options for relief because of recent action at both the federal and state levels.
The need is dire — between 330,000 and 480,000 of New Jersey's nearly 1.4 million tenants are unable to pay their rent and are at risk for eviction, according to a September study by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm.
Black and brown families are being disproportionately affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic, reducing their ability to make housing payments.
More than 317,000 New Jersey households are in arrears on rent payments, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey over a two-week period covering late November to early December. About 40% of those families are Hispanic, despite Hispanics' making up 21% of the state population. Overall, 207,000 families of color are behind on rent, compared with 110,000 white families.
In addition, more than 166,000 New Jersey families have "no confidence" they will be able to pay next month's rent, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. So what is the government offering to help these struggling households?
Here's the latest news on protections after Congress sent a $900 billion stimulus bill to President Donald Trump for his signature, as well as existing state protections and state legislation that has not yet made it to the governor:
Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums
In New Jersey, most renters and homeowners cannot be locked out of their homes until 60 days after the end of a "public health emergency," a 30-day designation that Gov. Phil Murphy makes via executive order and can renew.
Since Murphy most recently renewed that period on Monday, the eviction and foreclosure moratorium lasts until March 21, 2021.
There are rare exceptions to the moratorium, such as when a "tenant is violent or endangering other tenants," according to the governor's office. Renters should still try to make their monthly payments but cannot be kicked out if they cannot afford them.
This moratorium does not prevent landlords from starting the eviction process by filing eviction notices with the court, however. From March to November, landlords submitted close to 50,000 filings, the Administrative Office of the Courts said.
The existence of filings in the court system can harm tenants. Screening agencies that landlords rely on for background checks on tenants may include court filings in their reports, without providing context or the outcome in the cases. That could make it more difficult for a tenant to find a new place to live if landlords choose to categorically reject applications with landlord-tenant filings in their screenings.
Meanwhile, for those struggling to pay their mortgages, Murphy announced at the end of March that more than 40 financial institutions would offer mortgage forbearance for at least 90 days. Homeowners needed to contact their banks, and banks were not prohibited from demanding all of a borrower's delayed payments at once when the relief period ended. A bill to require that protection to move payments to the end of a mortgage has languished in the Legislature for months.
New Jersey's state eviction protections are stronger and last longer than those offered by the federal government under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has an eviction moratorium that expires Jan. 31, 2021, under the new stimulus bill.
Under the federal program, renters can't be locked out of their homes if they meet certain qualifications and sign a declaration attesting:
- They exhausted their "best efforts" to obtain government housing assistance.
- They earned less than $99,000 in 2020, or a couple earned less than $198,000.
- They can't make their rent because they lost work hours, were laid off or have "extraordinary" medical expenses.
- They make partial rent payments, depending on what they can afford.
- Being evicted would make them likely to become homeless or force them to live in close quarters with others.
Under the new federal stimulus deal, $25 billion will be set aside for emergency assistance to renters, though it's unclear how much money New Jersey will receive.
Sen. Bob Menendez's office estimated the Garden State would take away $600 million, but that's only half of the estimated $1.3 billion rent shortfall New Jersey will face by January 2021.
The funds would go to families affected by COVID-19 who are struggling to make rent and have past rent due, and could also cover utility and energy bills.
Earlier in the year, New Jersey awarded nearly $4.7 million to 885 landlords with buildings of three to 30 units under a Small Landlord Emergency Grant, according to the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. Murphy originally set aside $25 million for the program, but the state reduced the pot of funds, as demand was smaller than expected and landlords faced issues while applying.
Localities and counties may also offer their own COVID-19 housing relief programs. Here are some open and upcoming applications:
- In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka announced a rental assistance program that would provide up to three months of help, or a maximum of $2,000, to help tenants facing eviction due to the pandemic. Grants would be paid directly to landlords. Applications are open from Dec. 17 to Dec. 31 at 5 p.m. and can be found here: https://newarkcovid19.com/programs/emergency-rent-grants. An applicant's household income must be below 60% of the area median income: under $42,300 for one person, $48,300 for two people or $60,360 for four people.
- Atlantic County offers a maximum $10,000 or six months of rental and mortgage assistance to low- and moderate-income households that lost income or work due to the pandemic. An applicant's household income must be at or below 80% of the area median income. For example, one person must make less than $46,450, two people must make less than $53,100 or four people must make less than $66,250. For more information on the $1.49 million program, visit https://www.acianj.org/applications/.
- In Somerset County, families that lost income due to the pandemic can apply for up to three months of rent, or $3,000, whichever is less, paid to their landlords. Applicants are eligible if they live in any municipality except Franklin Township and have a household income less than $66,900 for one person, $76,500 for two people, or $95,600 for four people. For more information, visit https://www.co.somerset.nj.us/government/human-services/community-development/cdbg-cv-emergency-rental-relief-err-program. Residents of Franklin Township can apply for the township's housing assistance program until Dec. 30.
- Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said earlier this month that the city would write one-time $1,500 checks beginning in January and expand access to legal counsel for tenants navigating landlord-tenant court proceedings. Application information will be posted online in January, a city spokesperson said.
Only 13% of 60,000 applicants won rent forgiveness through a $100 million statewide lottery program offered earlier in the year. The Department of Human Services suspended applications for its $12 million COVID-19 Housing Assistance Programs to review the flood of responses it received.
Other state protections
- Security deposits: New Jersey renters can use their security deposits to help make rent payments, under an executive order signed by Murphy. Tenants would need to make another security deposit six months after the end of the public health emergency, or when the lease is extended or renewed, whichever comes later.
- Utility payments: Utility companies cannot shut off electricity, gas or water of customers who have not paid their bills until at least March 15, 2021, the governor's office said. Overdue utility bills are skyrocketing in New Jersey, an investigation by the Asbury Park Press found: As of Aug. 30, residential and commercial customers owed $442 million in gas and electric bills.
- Other resources: If you face an immediate eviction or foreclosure, call 1-800-NJ-HOUSE or contact a housing counselor in your county at https://www.njhousing.gov/foreclosure/. For free legal assistance, contact Legal Services of New Jersey at 1-88-LSNJ-LAW or https://lsnjlawhotline.org/.
The People's Bill, which state lawmakers have negotiated since April, would require renters and landlords to negotiate a payback agreement on any missed rent, and offer small landlords a tax incentive if they forgive missed rent.
It would also provide mortgage forbearance to homeowners, and require lenders to tack on missed payments at the end of the mortgage period.
Murphy has said he supports the massive housing bill, but Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has not put the bill up for a full vote, saying there were issues with it. The New Jersey Apartment Association has lobbied hard against the People's Bill.
The Legislature is weighing landlord relief legislation as well: S3037 would set aside $50 million to help landlords with one- to two-unit rentals, if the landlords don't start eviction proceedings against tenants who can't afford rent. Another bill, A4617, would take $300 million in future federal funding or the general fund to help landlords of all sizes.
Both bills are still in committees and would need to be passed by the full Senate and Assembly and signed by Murphy to become law.