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Emergency not over for NJ landlords stuck with nonpaying tenants

Emergency not over for NJ landlords stuck with nonpaying tenants

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The pandemic shutdown of the economy prompted trillions of dollars in aid to people and businesses suddenly shut or put out of work. There was also a concern nationwide that many would lose their apartments or rooms because they couldn’t pay the rent. But rather than give them the money to do so, governments instead simply barred landlords from evicting those who didn’t pay.

The federal eviction moratorium will continue through June 30 and at that time in most states landlords will again be able to require that their tenants pay their rent.

New Jersey has its own eviction moratorium and it too was supposed to end — two months after the end of the health emergency declared by Gov. Phil Murphy.

But a law enacted June 4 allows the governor to continue some emergency orders without the emergency. He and the Legislature will continue to prohibit landlords from evicting tenants who don’t pay their rent at least through the end of this year.

Helping people in financial distress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions is of course an admirable goal for society. But putting the burden of that help for one group of private individuals entirely on another group of private individuals is obviously unfair.

The federal government sent nearly $600 million in federal rental assistance in December to New Jersey and its counties and municipal agencies, but landlords have seen very little of it, according to David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association.

Landlords sheltered more than a million tenants in the state during the pandemic, carrying those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their rent. Brogan said they’ve seen their rental income fall 15% to 30% during the pandemic.

A bill in the Assembly would prohibit landlords from ever evicting tenants for nonpayment or late payment of rent during the pandemic from March 1 last year to July 31 this year. It would, however, allow them to pursue overdue rent from that period as a debt in civil court. “It is unfair to require private-sector landlords to provide such housing without compensation or assistance, while at the same time requiring them to continue to maintain those properties and pay their financial obligations, including state and local taxes,” according to the bill, which is before the Assembly Housing Committee.

The Legislature has passed and the governor has signed another rental housing bill, however. It makes New Jersey the first state to limit the ability of landlords to consider the criminal records of those applying to be tenants.

Landlords can’t do a criminal background check until after they have offered the housing to the applicant. Crimes can’t be considered relevant unless they occurred in the past year to six years, depending on the degree of the crime. After the background check, the landlord could withdraw the offer but would have to provide reasons for doing so, and the tenant could complain of discrimination to the state Attorney General’s Office. That office could then order the landlord to provide or find housing for the tenant.

From May 2020 through April 2021, the courts in New Jersey received 58,135 eviction filings. They were held up during the moratorium and would become moot if the Assembly bill is enacted.

“If we are going to extend the eviction moratorium until Jan. 1, and not provide meaningful assistance to landlords, you are going to see tenants accumulate more and more debt, and small landlords going bankrupt by the hundreds if not thousands,” Brogan told NJ Spotlight.

Besides the unfairness to landlords, the public also has a strong interest in affordable housing. That is already seriously lacking in the state. Even well-intentioned pandemic relief measures will make that shortfall worse if they make the provision of rental housing less economically viable.

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