New Jersey’s property tax break program for older residents and people with disabilities could be converted from rebates into tax credits — a tweak aimed to get relief into the pockets of families more quickly — in a bill that a state Senate committee moved forward on Thursday.
The aptly named Senior Freeze program currently freezes the property tax rate for eligible homeowners, so older residents often on a fixed income are not paying tax increases every year. But instead of solely paying that locked rate each year, property owners must pay the full property tax and are later reimbursed for the difference between the current year and the year they entered the program, which can sometimes take months.
Under two bills, S259 and S1501, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Shirley Turner and Vin Gopal, respectively, homeowners in the program would pay their first two quarterly property tax bills and receive credits lowering their third- and fourth-quarter bills.
“For many older New Jerseyans, having to pay that property tax bill upfront represents a real difficult burden,” said Evelyn Liebman, with AARP New Jersey. “This bill would allow participants who are struggling to afford everything from groceries to gas to medicine these days to have more resources and better financial security by eliminating that need to wait for their refund.”
In 2021, the average New Jersey property tax bill was $9,284, a 1.9% increase from the previous year. In 2020 — the last year with complete data available — close to 161,000 New Jerseyans participated in the Senior Freeze program, receiving an average check of $1,192.
The Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee voted to move the bills forward 5-0.
New Jersey could also strengthen its building inspection rules under S2760, conceived after the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida, collapsed in June 2021 and killed close to 100 people.
New Jersey already requires habitual inspections for maintenance and habitation issues. This bill also would require structural inspectors to review certain residential buildings covered under the legislation, which lawmakers voted to move forward 3-1 after close to an hour of discussion.
The New Jersey Apartment Association, a trade group for landlords, opposed the bill over fees attached to the inspections. The Community Associations Institute, a nonprofit of homeowner and condo associations, supported the legislation, hailing New Jersey as being proactive in the wake of the Florida tragedy.
“The inspections that we're talking about here are more comprehensive and more detailed and frankly, I think, would give residents of apartment buildings or condos a greater peace of mind as it relates to the structural integrity of the places they call home,” said Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington.
The committee also moved forward a bill, S2526, that would allow local authorities to reduce water, sewer and stormwater fees for low-income families if the authorities have enough funds to offset the loss in payments. Lawmakers voted to release the bill 4-1.
Under S2981, New Jersey may also set up a task force to study the impacts and benefits of “homesharing,” in which hosts offer a room or space in their home to another person who needs a place to live. Senators voted 5-0 to advance the bill.
Another bill, S183, would give first dibs to senior citizens and people with disabilities to move to a lower floor of an apartment building where they are already living if the building has three or more floors, giving them preference over outside applicants. Lawmakers voted 5-0 to advance the bill.
Senators also discussed — but did not vote on — S1665, a bill that would keep certain eviction records private if a tenant was not ordered out of her home, and for the first 60 days after an eviction action is filed. The bill would also expunge eviction records more than three years old, and would bar landlords from considering such records when reviewing a rental application.
Landlords would have to give prospective tenants a “screening criteria document” that would explain what factors the landlord was evaluating when reviewing the rental application.
Landlords often run background checks and deny rental applications for those who have a landlord-tenant action associated with their name, even if the tenant was not evicted or was in court fighting for fixes to his home. New Jersey made these records confidential during the pandemic as the state was under an eviction moratorium and thousands of people could not afford rent, but that law covered less than a two-year time frame.
“Our major concern is the level of discrimination right now in New Jersey against poor, minority tenants, that these landlords are using the smallest infraction to really discriminate and not rent them an apartment,” said Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson. “We're seeing it over and over and over again, where somebody can't rent another apartment because of a tough time they had in their life.”