N.J. court officials prepare for a ‘pending crisis’ of eviction cases when moratorium lifts

Trenton, N.J. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Trenton, N.J. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

In March of last year, Gov. Phil Murphy imposed a moratorium on evictions so no New Jerseyans could be booted from their homes in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Now the state is taking some of the first steps toward preparing for the flood of landlord-tenant cases expected whenever the moratorium lifts.

A special committee formed by the judiciary issued a report Wednesday that recommends ways the state can handle what appears to be an unprecedented surge of legal proceedings.

“We face a pending crisis once the governor’s moratorium on evictions is lifted,” said Judge Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the state courts, during a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month.

“The economic impact of COVID-19 has left tens of thousands of tenants struggling or unable to pay their rent. At the same time, landlords who rely upon rent to pay their bills have seen their livelihoods placed in jeopardy as well,” Grant added.

Cases have been piling up during the pandemic, and court officials expect another 194,000 new cases will be filed over the coming year, inundating staff who will already be playing catch-up.

Among the report’s recommendations are that the judiciary work to resolve more landlord-tenant cases before they reach trial, connect both landlords and tenants with available financial resources, and hold trials virtually whenever possible.

But there are still obstacles, Grant said, such as a “huge gap” in how few tenants are able to hire lawyers for their cases.

Maura Sanders, chief counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey, said many renters are anxious not knowing when they’ll be due in court.

“People are very scared about what’s going to happen,” Saunders said. “We have people who are behind on their rent many months and who are holding on, hoping for rent assistance and hoping for some other solution that’s going to help them stay in their housing or find other housing if they can’t.”

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs is still taking applications for the second round of its rental assistance program for people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet advocates worry that those hit hardest by the pandemic will be at risk again when eviction cases resume.

“The vast majority of renters are Black and brown people,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.

“The most disproportionately impacted during the pandemic in general are also people of color who are renters.”

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