By JAIME JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

In order to be protected from evictions, renters will now have to certify their income and the effects of COVID-19 on that income with the state.

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that begins to wind down the eviction moratorium first enacted last year that protected renters who experienced economic hardship during the pandemic. 

Montclair’s housing advocate Deirdre Malloy with Gov. Phil Murphy after he signed legislation providing new rental assistance and beginning to wind down the state’s eviction moratorium on Aug. 4 in Union City.
COURTESY DEIRDE MALLOY
Montclair’s housing advocate Deirdre Malloy with Gov. Phil Murphy after he signed legislation providing new rental assistance and beginning to wind down the state’s eviction moratorium on Aug. 4 in Union City.
COURTESY DEIRDE MALLOY
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The new law, signed Aug. 4, provides protections at different household income levels in the months ahead.

Renters seeking protection from eviction are now required to fill out an income self-certification form available at COVID19.nj.gov in order to benefit from further protections.

In Montclair, 41% of households are renters, according to Census estimates. And starting this month, renters who face possible eviction will begin seeing notices of mandatory settlement conferences in their mailboxes

Under the new legislation, the moratorium will end Aug. 31 for renters whose households make at least 80% but less than 120% of the area’s median income (AMI). The moratorium continues through the end of the year for households with incomes below 80% of the AMI. 

For Montclair, the AMI is $99,500, according to Census records.

In addition, under a new CDC protection order, renters living in a county experiencing "substantial" or "high" levels of COVID-19 community transmission may be able to remain in their homes through Oct. 3. The CDC has its own form to qualify for eviction protection, also linked from the state’s coronavirus hub at COVID19.nj.gov. Essex County is now at a substantial community transmission rate, so Montclairians could fall under the federal order. 

The state certification form allows renters to declare their economic impacts from COVID-19, certify whether they have applied for rental assistance and address other questions to assist the government in providing renters with help.

The certification will help streamline the process for applying for rental assistance and aid the courts in the case of eviction proceedings. 

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. Housing advocates have reported that the system is mired with problems. 

Montclair landlord and housing advocate William Scott said he and his tenant have been waiting since March for their application to be finalized, and to get Scott the eight months of rent that are owed to him.

“You could be in the system for six months before knowing if you have been approved or not,” Scott, who has lost 25% of his rental income over the last year, said. 

He and others hope the new system will be more efficient.

“Housing advocates are diligently working to support and monitor the good system [the state Department of Community Affairs] has in place, although discoveries for improvement are likely across the board even with the courts’ process. Remember this is all unprecedented and NJ is taking the head in trying to address the evictions crisis,” Montclair resident and housing advocate Deirdre Malloy, who helped draft the legislation, said.

To self-certify, renters will be asked for their addresses, counties of residence, the total number of people in their households and their household incomes. The household income is the total amount of money made by all of the people 18 years or older in the home.

All rental households making less than 120% AMI will be protected from eviction for nonpayment of rent from March 1, 2020 through Aug. 31, if they meet the income eligibility requirements and file the required form. 

Additionally, households at less than 80% of AMI who certify their income level, that they have suffered hardship due to the pandemic and that they have applied for rental assistance will be protected from eviction for unpaid rent through Dec. 31.

However, a landlord may still pursue an action for a money judgment (not an eviction) for any rent due. Outstanding rent from before or after the protected periods can still be grounds for eviction. 

Renters should send a copy of their form to their landlords. Renters who face eviction through the court can send the form directly to the court, and include their docket number.

This month, 18,000 renters in Essex County and their landlords will head to mandatory settlement conferences instead of court in an attempt to resolve a backlog of eviction cases due to the pandemic. Court reforms announced July 15 mandate that the parties attend settlement conferences with a state-appointed mediator, aiming to resolve more than 56,600 pending landlord-tenant cases statewide without moving to trial.

If noticed by the court, Felipe Chavana, the executive director of Essex-Newark Legal Services, suggests tenants reach out to his organization or other legal services for advice. He said tenants should have already sought rental assistance and have their funds available to make settlements. Tenants should also have documentation to show any rent paid, applications for assistance, their certifications and their documents to back their financial situations. 

According to a notice recently issued by the courts, the tenant or landlord may request adjournment of a scheduled court date or settlement conference if an application for rental assistance is pending. Scott said in his case he waited three months to get even an application number.

The new law also appropriates an additional $500 million for the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program and $250 million for utility assistance, both programs administered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Renters can register for rental and and utility help through DCA or through the county’s $15.4 million rent assistance and utilities assistance program.

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.

“The pandemic sapped the economic resources of many working-class families, particularly among communities of color,” Frank Argote-Freyre, chair of the Latino Action Network Foundation, said. “It was a once-in-a-century crisis that left families impoverished and unable to pay their rents. This legislation offers families an opportunity to reclaim their lives and stay in their homes.”

Murphy also signed a law Aug. 4 restricting the reporting of unpaid rent or debt owed during the pandemic to credit reporting and debt collection agencies, and strongly limiting the sale or transfer of civil debt.