N.J. could soon face a historic housing crisis. A city devastated by COVID-19 might be the epicenter.

Thousands of families forced from their homes. Homelessness at historic levels. A city already devastated by COVID-19 facing yet another crisis.

Newark is on the brink of a housing emergency — hastened by the coronavirus — that could have cascading effects across New Jersey.

More than 14,000 eviction cases are pending in Essex County court — most of them thought to involve Newark tenants — delayed because evictions have been suspended during the pandemic under Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency order.

But as more people get vaccinated and the state climbs out of the devastation wrought by the pandemic, Newark and other cities could be plunged into an eviction crisis they’re not prepared to face.

“Unless there is something systemically done to address this overwhelming backlog and imminent avalanche (of evictions), I do not think things are going to be back to normal,” said Khabirah Myers, a lawyer in Newark’s Office of Tenant Legal Services. “We’re going to see potential homelessness at historic levels.”

The problem is not confined to Newark. A staggering number of New Jersey residents could be thrown out of their housing unless substantial funding is earmarked for rental assistance for tenants who have fallen behind on rent and evictions are further delayed, experts say.

Around 60,000 evictions are pending across the state, data from the state judiciary shows. Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Association, said those likely represent only a fraction of evictions that will be filed once the moratorium ends.

“Most landlords haven’t filed evictions because of the lockout moratorium,” Shapiro said. “If we don’t do something, you’re going to see 200,000, 300,000 pending evictions.”

Eviction filings declined dramatically in 2020 after the moratorium went into effect, according to judiciary data. From April through the end of the year, 46,245 evictions were filed across the state, down nearly 60% from the 112,888 filed during the same period in 2019.

If evictions had not been on hold, it’s likely the number of 2020 evictions would have been much higher than previous years. One estimate said almost one-third of renters failed to pay their rent fully and on-time in July.

But even with evictions on hold since the pandemic began, some renters in New Jersey have still been forced from their homes, both legally and illegally, tenant advocates say. Dozens of people in Newark and beyond have reported being locked out of their homes without a warrant allowing it, according to a story published this week by NorthJersey.com.

While the potential eviction crisis will affect most of the state, Newark will likely be the epicenter, much like it has been during the pandemic.

“In every city, renters will face an enormous crisis when eviction moratoriums expire,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement. “This is acute in Newark where 78% of our residents are tenants. Unless the federal government treats emergency rental assistance as an urgent priority, Newark will face a tsunami of evictions.”

Newark is particularly vulnerable because of a dire shortage of affordable housing, a situation underlined in a new report from Rutgers University researchers. That report, released last month, found that nearly two-thirds of Newark tenants are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent, a federal benchmark of affordability. Nearly a third spend at least half their income on rent.

The median rent in Newark is about $1,100 a month. That is far more than the $763 mark that would satisfy the 30% affordability threshold, based on the city’s average household income of $30,000. This disparity leaves the city short about 16,000 affordable units.

Now add thousands of pending evictions and an unknown number yet to be filed, and you have a full-blown housing crisis.

With unemployment hovering above 7.5% in New Jersey, many of those facing eviction will have few options beyond a relative’s couch or the streets.

“Our understanding is that people move in with others, people are homeless or live in their cars or people leave the region,” said David Troutt, one of the researchers who published the Rutgers affordability report. “You don’t have many options if you’re unable to stay where you are.”

Newark has already been devastated by COVID-19. The city has recorded the most coronavirus cases (32,745 — 4.5% of the state’s total) and the most deaths (886 — 4.2% of the state’s total), despite having little more than 3% of New Jersey’s population.

Since Murphy declared a public emergency one year ago, evictions have mostly halted, with the governor acknowledging that kicking people out of their homes would likely spread COVID-19. Murphy’s order included a moratorium on lockouts, meaning landlords can’t shut people out of their homes, even if they’re behind on rent or have eviction proceedings started against them. The state Supreme Court has also pushed pause on eviction cases, hence the huge backlog of cases.

But the moratorium on lockouts is set to expire two months after Murphy rescinds the emergency declaration — though there is no indication that action is imminent — and tenant advocates fear that courts could soon grind back into gear. That could push tens of thousands of people out of their homes while COVID-19 is still smoldering.

“We are definitely heading toward an avalanche of evictions, an ultimate crisis,” said Shapiro, of the tenants organization. “If it’s not prevented... if we have had a tamping down of the pandemic, that will change. The conditions of 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 evictions, the conditions that those people will be forced to live in are ones that are ripe for spreading the virus.”

Thousands of New Jersey residents have fallen behind on their rent, having lost their jobs or faced reduced hours or diminished business.

That also means that thousands of landlords have gone without some or all of their income. The impact has been particularly hard on smaller landlords, said Derek Reed, a past president of the New Jersey Property Owners Association.

“I do know that landlords are struggling,” Reed said. “There’s quite a few folks out there with tenants who haven’t paid in 12, six months.”

Even if tenants are unable to pay rent, landlords are still required to pay property taxes, maintenance and mortgage notes, though there has been some mortgage forbearance during the pandemic. Reed said that direct rental assistance is key to helping both landlords and tenants.

Lawmakers are attempting to oblige. In January, Newark received $8.4 million in rental assistance from the stimulus package passed by Congress in December. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that includes billions in funds for state and local governments.

Baraka said Newark needs these funds used to help people stay in their homes.

“I am working with Governor Murphy and the state’s federal legislators to ensure that a major share of un-earmarked funds from the president’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill are directed to rental assistance,” the mayor said. “This is on top of funds specifically dedicated to rental assistance in the federal bill. We will also set aside part of the stimulus funds coming directly to Newark for rental assistance.”

State legislators have also introduced bills aimed at preventing widespread evictions. One bill calls for the pause on evictions to extend one year beyond when it is currently set to expire, while another aims to limit evictions for nonpayment of rent. Neither bill has passed both chambers of the Legislature.

Myers, from Newark’s Office of Tenant Legal Services, said additional protections for renters is badly needed if Newark, and New Jersey as a whole, is to avoid yet another catastrophe.

“Where are they going to go? There are only but so many shelters that the city of Newark has,” Myers said. “We need to make housing a priority. If we can get our legislators to understand that, then we will start to see less of a crisis.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-15 02:34:26 -0700