For Ziggy Gallegos, 42, of Egg Harbor Township, losing his job due to the pandemic has meant an inability to pay rent for almost five months now.
His landlord understood for the first few months, as Gallegos struggled to get in touch with someone at the state unemployment program, he said.
But his landlord recently has been telling him he must move out. Gallegos is so afraid of being locked out, he is reluctant to leave home.
Gallegos is not alone in his fears, according to Janel Winter, director of the state Division of Housing and Community Resources in the Department of Community Affairs.
“We have noticed the past several days an uptick in the number of questions coming through (the division’s web portal),” Winter said. “They say, ‘My landlord is saying he or she can evict me.’”
“We want people to know,” Winter added, “ ... right now in New Jersey, a moratorium is in place, and people can stay in their homes.”
The state moratorium, created by Gov. Phil Muprhy’s executive order 106, remains in place until 60 days after the end of the state public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, it runs until Oct. 1. Should the governor extend the emergency again, the moratorium would extend to 60 days after that date.
On July 24, the federal moratorium on eviction, part of the CARES Act, lapsed. Winter said that is probably causing some of the confusion among renters and landlords who mistakenly think eviction is now possible here.
Under New Jersey’s moratorium, no evictions are permitted even for valid reasons, according to the DCA. The courts have suspended hearings and adjudicating landlord-tenant cases, and sheriffs aren’t executing warrants to remove residents from their housing.
Problems paying rent remain widespread in New Jersey.
A July 23 report compiled for the nonprofit Coalition of Housing Advocates in New Jersey by global advisory firm Stout, estimated that 40% of all New Jersey renter households — about 450,000 — will not be able to pay their August rent.
And New Jersey is the seventh most expensive state in which to rent, according to “Out of Reach,” a report jointly released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
Gallegos has been unemployed since losing his job with a timeshare cancellation company in Egg Harbor Township in March, and applied for unemployment benefits April 5.
He has not been able to collect any benefits yet, nor has he been able to get through on the phone to an unemployment agent to fix the problem. When he finally got through to a call center, he was told the center could only take his information, and a specialist would call him in 5 to 10 days. But it has been almost a month without a call, Gallegos said.
“I live in a motel — the same motel almost a year now,” Gallegos said. “I explained the situation I’m going through with unemployment, and showed her (my landlord) the proof. I have zero income. If it weren’t for my girlfriend, I’d probably be dead of starvation.”
According to the DCA, those who rent at motels or hotels on a continual basis, and do not have other permanent housing to return to, are protected against eviction under Murphy’s order.
“I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I had children. It would be dire,” Gallegos said.
Landlords have gotten some relief under the federal CARES Act, Stout said in its report. Smaller landlords with 1-4 unit residential buildings can get mortgage forbearance for a maximum of 360 days, and those with buildings of five or more units can get a maximum of 90 days, according to Stout.
The state’s housing division operates rental assistance programs and pays rent for about 40,000 households every month, Winter said, as well as running homelessness programs and many other programs.
It recently held a lottery drawing for a $100 million state rental assistance program in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and got almost 61,000 applications. On Wednesday, it will notify the about 8,000 households that have been chosen, but they still have to provide more information to the state before being fully approved.
Applications were open to those who had paid their rent successfully prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and were now having difficulty paying their rent due to the crisis, Winter said.
Their rent will be paid directly to their landlords for a maximum of six months, starting in September, she said.
Under the state moratorium, landlords can file an eviction complaint to start the legal process, but filing the complaint does not mean renters must leave, Winter said.
“Even if served notice, with the moratorium in place you don’t have to leave,” she said.
Landlords are also not permitted to have water and power turned off, or to take other steps to make renters leave.
“If they do that, you should call the police,” Winter said. “Eviction is a legal process. A landlord can’t tell you you have to go, or lock you out. You have a right to go to court and make your case.”