Thousands of eviction cases set to be heard in New Jersey
The nearly 57,000 eviction cases filed in New Jersey since the pandemic began 17 months ago are about to be heard and now tenant advocates fear the courts will act too quickly and use a process that could lead to more evictions.
Last week, the state’s Supreme Court released procedures to be used from September 1 to address the mountain of cases that have accumulated during the deportation moratorium in effect since March 2020.
The procedures, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in his order that created them, “support and balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants”. The procedures adopt many of the recommendations of a special committee on landlord-tenant issues.
To solve as many cases as possible, there are strict rules consequences of not appearing at a settlement conference or trial, most of which will take place virtually. If an owner does not show up, the case is discontinued. If a tenant does not show up and the landlord proves they are entitled to a remedy, the court will issue a default judgment and the landlord may request a removal warrant.
Some tenant advocates say these rules are likely to hurt tenants more than landlords, as most landlords are represented by lawyers, while most tenants are not, and the court did not pass recommendations to level the playing field. These included listing common defenses tenants could raise on case forms and removing that paperwork from a checkbox that would allow tenants to accept the immediate entry of an eviction judgment. they lose.
Had “hoped for a fairer system”
“What they are doing now is better than what they had before, but it is really insufficient in some ways that we thought were important and that is why people are disappointed,” said Michael Noveck of the law firm. Gibbons based in Newark. “We were hoping for a fairer system.
Lawyers also said they question the need to expedite these processes, given that legislation pending on Gov. Phil Murphy’s office could nullify the need for many of these procedures. Currently, the New Jersey deportations moratorium remains in place until the end of the year. The law project (S-3691) would lift this effective September 1, except for low- and moderate-income people who have been unable to pay their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are applying for rent assistance. He would also dismiss all pending eviction actions for non-payment or usual late payment of rent or for non-payment of a rent increase since March 1, 2020 against those whose income is 120% of the median. from the area – $ 94,500 for a family of three in Bergen County. – or less. Instead, the rent owed would be seen as a debt that landlords could seek to collect from the courts.
“If the governor signs this bill, many of these cases will not have to go through the process at all,” said Renee Koubiadis, director of the anti-poverty program at New Jersey Citizen Action.
The New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) backed this legislation as a “meaningful compromise” to help end the moratorium on evictions while protecting tenants and providing rent assistance. The state has already set aside $ 353 million in rent assistance for low- and moderate-income households and expects to receive an additional $ 272 million for this purpose from the US federal bailout. The bill would spend an additional $ 750 million in federal COVID relief assistance in rental or utility assistance to tenants considered low to middle income.
An accompanying invoice (S-3955) which is also awaiting Murphy’s signing would create a state rental aid navigation program to help prevent evictions, including helping tenants who have not paid their rent, or if a tenant does no demand and no pay, the owner can ask for help.
David Brogan, executive director of the apartments association, said the pandemic had also devastated landlords who had not paid rent and the eviction moratorium bill struck a good balance in helping landlords two groups in difficulty.
Why the rush?
“Landlords and tenants are inextricably linked, and this bill takes both perspectives into account while creating a pragmatic path out of this pandemic,” he said shortly after the projects were finally passed. law at the end of last month.
Lawyers expect Murphy to sign the bill, leading them to question why the court is moving forward with settlement conferences that could lead to tenant evictions.
“It’s a little confusing for us that they want to start these conferences right away and start making judgments against people who could not be deported because of the moratorium, whose cases would probably be closed because of the bill and whose rent may, at the end of the day, be paid in full anyway, ”Noveck said.
The judges want to prevent a repeat of the foreclosure crisis that began in the late 2000s and led to a huge workload that has persisted for years. But Rabner also wrote that the September 1 resume date for deportation trials could be “adjusted in light of legislation pending governor action and ongoing collaboration with the Department of Community Affairs.” .
As part of the new eviction resolution process, the state is spending $ 2.4 million to hire and train dozens of landlord-tenant legal specialists to try to resolve disputes and settle cases so they don’t. do not have to be judged. Tenant advocates say proper training will be important to help people who might not be able to make their case, as well as a lawyer representing a landlord or people who may have a disability, not speak English or who may lack the technology for virtual conferencing skills to use it properly.
“We are starting to turn the corner with the pandemic, but people are still struggling,” Koubiadis said. “They juggle to try to have enough hours of work. They are behind on their utility bills, trying to get food on the table and cover drugs and medical bills. If people miss their date and get a judgment against them, it seems unfair. “
A court spokeswoman said mandatory settlement conferences are currently scheduled.