As evictions loom, courts hope landlord-tenant disputes can be settled without going to trial
JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS /STAFF
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
This August, 18,000 renters in Essex County and their landlords will head to mandatory settlement conferences — hoping to avoid evictions in a process state court officials hope will give them relief from a huge backlog of cases as an end to the state’s evictions moratorium looms.
New Jersey courts are estimating 192,000 families could face eviction statewide in just the first quarter of next year, Superior Court Judge Stephen Petrillo said.
Twenty-four percent of New Jersey renters either can’t currently pay their rent or worry they won’t be able to in the next two months and fear eviction, according to a recent analysis from QuoteWizard by LendingTree, citing data collected in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Household Pulse Surveys.
And members of Black and Hispanic communities are nearly twice as likely to be facing eviction as those in white communities, the analysis found.
Thirty percent of New Jersey’s housing stock is rental, Petrillo said. In Montclair, that number is about 41%, according to Census estimates.
On July 22, Petrillo joined two other judges as well as landlord and tenant advocates to break down recent reforms by the New Jersey Supreme Court when it comes to landlord-tenant disputes taken to court. The panel was directed by Montclair’s Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee co-chair, Deirdre Malloy, and sponsored by the Essex County courts.
The reforms, announced July 15, authorize mandatory settlement conferences, aiming to resolve more than 56,600 pending landlord-tenant cases statewide without moving to trial.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended an order preventing residential lockouts for tenants through July 31. New Jersey residents have more time, but how much is an open question.
Gov. Phil Murphy terminated the state’s Public Health Emergency on June 4, but legislation approved in a deal with lawmakers preserves his executive order creating a moratorium on evictions through the end of this year. Murphy himself still has the authority to lift that order earlier.
Lawmakers have also approved legislation that would end the moratorium after Aug. 31 for renters whose annual household income is above 80% of their county’s median income, as well as provide millions of dollars in rental assistance. That bill remained on Murphy’s desk as of Monday.
But the process for resolving disputes will begin before the moratorium ends. The settlement conferences will begin in August, with trials resuming in September for those cases in which settlements aren’t reached. State officials are hoping most won’t need to get that far.
‘A settlement is better’
“The order [mandating the settlement conferences] enumerates new procedures that support efforts to resolve residential landlord tenant matters expeditiously while upholding and balancing the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants,” the state courts said in a press release announcing the new process. “The procedures will enable early identification of issues and provide opportunities for parties to connect with rental assistance and legal assistance resources.”
The reforms are in response to an April report by a special judiciary committee tasked with examining longstanding landlord-tenant issues, addressing ways to deal with the huge number of pending and anticipated filings in landlord-tenant matters prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In rented premises, as in owned homes, housing security is critically important to the resident and the surrounding community,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in the order for the new reforms. “At the same time, rental property owners must be able to meet their obligations, both to retain the property and to keep it as available housing for renters. In light of these significant needs, a court system in the pursuit of equitable justice must support processes that uphold and balance the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants.” Most mediation proceedings will be held remotely but can be in-person on a limited basis. The judiciary will provide on-site technology to enable participation for those who need assistance.
Landlords have a right to a reasonable rate of return on their investment, attorney Lindsey Baretz said, adding they have not had assistance in mortgage payments or water bills during the pandemic.
In August, renters who face eviction will begin seeing notices of their settlement conferences in their mailboxes.
“A settlement is better. The landlord and the tenant are in a much better position to decide than a judge in a black robe. ... Housing stability benefits everyone,” Petrillo said.
Felipe Chavana, the executive director of Essex-Newark Legal Services, said tenants shouldn’t ignore the notices. He suggests tenants reach out to his organization or other legal services for advice, and should have already sought rental assistance and have their funds available to make settlements. Most of all, he advises, tenants should have documentation to show any rent paid, applications for assistance and their financial situations.
In March, New Jersey opened up the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program Phase II, funded by $350 million in federal stimulus money, to assist eligible households struggling to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applicants are put on a waiting list and notified when to complete their applications.
In May, Essex County began its rental assistance program, with $15.4 million available to be awarded. Renters and landlords who have been negatively affected during the pandemic and who need help to pay rent or utility bills can apply for funding.
The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities of Newark also offer assistance.
But the availability of support doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in hand.
"Some of those tenants are waiting for ERAP [Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds] and/or truly don't have the capacity to ‘settle’ at any financial amount,” Malloy, the co-chair of Montclair’s Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee, said. “This is a problem.”
She said tenants might be able to ask for more time at their settlement conferences.
Malloy said there is currently no data on how many people have applied for or received rental assistance.
“No one knows that true number yet. [The Department of Community Affairs] at the state level and nonprofits tasked with ERAP funds track numbers on applicants that apply. There is no aggregate yet,” she said.
The bill that could end the moratorium early for some high-income residents would also provide more funds and supplement the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program Phase II. The program would be open to accepting applications for assistance no later than the end of August. A household would be eligible for assistance under the program regardless of whether the household has been served with a summons and complaint for eviction.
It would offer $500 million for emergency rental payments to tenants/landlords and $250 million for utilities assistance.
For now, tenants should know that it is a crime for a landlord to lock out a renter. Under New Jersey law, only the courts can order evictions, and only government officials can remove a person from a home.
Chavana said if a landlord locks a renter out, that renter should call the police; they’re required to help the renter get back into the home.
Tenants needing advice can call the Essex County Legal Aid Association at 973-622-0063. Because the current need is great and lines may be busy, the association advises tenants to first fill out a form on its website, at eclaanj.org.
Help in Montclair?
Since the 1990s, Montclair’s Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee — composed of tenants, landlords and homeowners — has advised residents and officials on housing issues and conditions, and directly assisted in the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes through mediations. Committee members advised landlords and tenants alike on their rights based on New Jersey’s Tenants Rights Handbook, but had no authority to make actual rulings.
But in May, township officials stopped the mediations, saying they want to revamp the committee’s role.
In an email obtained by Montclair Local, from Township Attorney Ira Karasick to Malloy, he states: “As the township attorney, I have been particularly concerned that the [committee] creates expectations that are being seized upon more and more by tenants caught in the current health and housing crises — expectation of results that you are trying to manage but that the township has no power to provide.”
Many of the disputes were over high rent increases, as Montclair didn’t have a rent control stabilization ordinance until last year, and that ordinance remains caught up in the courts after a group of landlords hoping to force a referendum on the matter sued the town. But many of the disputes were over repairs or quality-of-life issues, with tenants withholding rent. Those could wind up in the court system now as well.
“Unfortunately, presently I cannot and do not help tenants or landlords under the [Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee] banner at this time. Many people are upset about this. I help tenants and landlords as an independent advocate with other resources inside, but mostly outside of Montclair that are unrelated to the township,” Malloy said.