The next big epidemic is evictions | Editorial

Posted Jun 14, 2020

It’s happening already: Renters are being illegally tossed out on the street in the pandemic by their landlords, in truly outrageous fashion.

And in just a few weeks, it’s about to get so much worse.

Imagine, two days after your elderly father dies of coronavirus, being locked out of your apartment by your landlord. This was the experience of Edward Ware, Jr., of Newark, who discovered his locks had been changed while he was out making the funeral arrangements.

He’d lost his income due to COVID and couldn’t pay rent. Because he was paid under the table by his boss in construction, he couldn’t collect unemployment, either. Then he got a notice slipped under his door.

“Please allow us to extend our sympathies,” it said, on the death of his father, before giving him 14 days to get out of the home they’d shared for five years. As it turned out, he didn’t even have that. His locks got changed that same day.

“My father was in the hospital for about a month. He was fighting, on a ventilator,” Ware said. “My older sister passed away in March, then he passed in May. I was really going through a lot… It’s like they just don’t care about no one but money.”

This violates the spirit and the letter of Phil Murphy’s executive order that put a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped some landlords. And as soon as it’s lifted, expect an avalanche of evictions, all over the state.

New Jersey desperately needs a clear policy to give all the tenants who fell behind a chance for gradual repayment. Lawmakers are holding a hearing on Tuesday, and should act before rent comes due in July.

Otherwise, we’ll see thousands left homeless or in overcrowded shelters, further exposing them to the risk of a deadly infection.

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As many as 40 percent of New Jerseyans have someone in their home who’s lost a job due to the pandemic, a Monmouth University poll found. For the poorest, it’s as much as 50 percent. And that’s disproportionately true for Black and Latino families.

The $100 million our governor devoted to emergency renter assistance will help about 10,000 to 15,000 families, which is great – but there are 1 million renters in New Jersey. Advocates estimate at least 500,000 are struggling right now to make rent.

Murphy also allowed tenants to use their security deposit to pay one month’s rent, but most did so already in May. Every month, more will come up short.

While courts aren’t yet processing evictions, they are allowing filings and mediation sessions, in which a tenant usually shows up alone on Zoom, and is easily pressured by a lawyer for the landlord into a deal to voluntarily leave.

And starting Monday, landlords will have their cases heard in court. Evictions are set to begin 60 days after Murphy’s moratorium is lifted. Essex County has at least 5,000 filed cases in the pipeline – that’s thousands of landlords, waiting to kick out tenants having hardships due to COVID.

Judges will be swamped and under tremendous pressure to quickly check cases off as resolved, even if it leaves someone evicted a few months later. Tenants may be blacklisted by future landlords, who hold evictions against them. It could create a permanent underclass, further fueled by gentrification, as landlords welcome wealthier tenants fleeing places like Brooklyn.

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In a city like Newark, where 78 percent of residents are renters, it could mean pure chaos. If not for his bureaucratic Batwoman, Khabirah Myers – a free lawyer provided by the city, who partners with the nonprofit Legal Services – Edward Ware Jr. says he’d probably be out on the street right now.

Even before COVID, Newark was one of just three cities in America, aside from New York City and Philly, to put money toward free legal representation for people facing eviction, to Mayor Ras Baraka’s credit. The city also just gave low-income residents up to $1,000 each in emergency funds, to help pay rent or utilities.

“He’s been great on this. He’s leading conversations that few other elected officials are willing or even able to have,” housing advocate Staci Berger says of Baraka.

His city has invested $400,000 so far in this legal program it hopes to expand, and it goes a long way: Myers says her office has helped more than 890 tenants and handled more than 150 eviction cases.

Yet the need, already great, is now exploding. One tenant’s wife was six months pregnant when their landlord illegally evicted the family during the pandemic – including two girls, ages five and eight.

“He came to my job, yelling in front of all my colleagues that I was illegal here and he’s going to deport me to Portugal,” according to the tenant, Luis Miguel, an essential worker in a supermarket who says he has always paid his rent.

It’s not uncommon for landlords to use someone’s residency status to force them out on a whim, Myers says, despite the recent moratorium on evictions. Just getting on the phone with the landlord or cop who shows up at the door can prevent an eviction, once people know their rights.

But this landlord still proceeded to shut off the family’s utilities for nearly a week. “I’ll see you in court,” Myers says he fumed, before hanging up on her with a click.

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We can’t stop evictions forever, but lawmakers need to do all they can to level the playing field. “It’s very unfair that landlords expect that tenants can pay immediately upfront,” says advocate Adam Gordon of Fair Share Housing.

“It’s not like if you’re a restaurant in Newark, you can say, ‘I expected to be paid for meals that didn’t happen, so I should get the full amount right now,'" he added. "It can’t be that landlords have different rights than other businesses have right now.”

The governor needs a bill on his desk immediately that sets up a fairer process for tenants. Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake and Senator Troy Singleton have both offered variations on that theme. They should fuse their best ideas to create a repayment plan for renters that’s actually feasible, and act swiftly.

Among other good proposals in Timberlake’s “People’s Bill”: Put a moratorium on any filings for eviction; require banks to offer a mortgage forbearance for owners who don’t qualify for similar federal protection – putting payments owed on the back end of the mortgage; and for both renters and mortgage lenders, ensure there’s no damage to credit scores or late fees.

Putting a repayment on the back of a 30-year mortgage is a relatively easy fix. The harder issue is monthly rent for tenants. Let’s make sure we don’t set them up for failure, as Gordon says: A wave of mass evictions the moment this moratorium expires, and another wave, a month later.

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