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TRENTON - Trying to figure out where the Garden State stands concerning Covid rental assistance programs and the thousands of eviction filings is no easy task.

The state does not make data readily available. New state laws governing evictions are complex and provide little insight into the magnitude of the problem in specific areas.

New Jersey has over 60,000 eviction cases filed since the state moratorium barring evictions was promulgated in March 2020. This mountain of cases led the state judicial system to issue special procedures for handling landlord-tenant matters. Those procedures went into effect Sept. 1.

Meanwhile, New Jersey has been spending millions of dollars of federal relief funds in rental assistance programs that tenant advocates say have only scratched the surface of what is needed. As of Sept. 1, the state says it distributed $232 million to 26,000 households.

While it is difficult to put that number in context, the U.S. Census report on rent-occupied households in New Jersey, as of Aug. 31, shows 226,230 households “not caught up in rent.” It further shows that most of those households have a combined income of less than $50,000. 

The Household Pulse Survey reports that almost 26,000 households report it is very likely they will have to leave their home because of eviction in the next two months, while 45,000 say it is somewhat likely.

What's the Rental Picture in Cape May County?

In Out of Reach, a 2021 housing report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), New Jersey is shown to be one of the most expensive states in the nation when considering the wage needed for average rental properties. 

Within the state, Cape May County is the seventh least expensive in terms of the required annual income needed for a two-bedroom unit at fair market rent. That size household in the county requires an annual income of $54,440.

The report also states that Cape May County has one of the lowest county percentages of households that are permanent renters, at 22%. Hudson County leads that list, at 68%. Sussex County is the lowest, at 17%.

The gross numbers may suggest that the problem in the county is not as severe as elsewhere in the state, but it is difficult to confirm that hypothesis. 

As of the beginning of summer, there were over 300 eviction cases filed in the county, but how that number relates to the full breadth of the problem in the county is unclear.

Relief Funds

The Covid Emergency Rental Assistance Program Phase II (CVERAP-II) poured over half a billion dollars into the state for rental relief; $230 million of those funds were distributed to 14 counties and two cities, funding county stand-alone programs. 

Cape May County was not one of the 14 counties that received separate funding. This county, like the others that were not specifically singled out, must coordinate its rental assistance efforts through the state program.

In a recent U.S. Treasury report, New Jersey was considered third in the nation for the distribution of the rental assistance relief funds. Yet, advocates for tenants and landlords both claim the relief is not getting to those in need fast enough.

Part of the reason may be that the funds, as large as they are, may not be up to the challenge. In July alone, assistance to households in the state was $71 million, with $62.7 million distributed by the state and $8.2 million through local programs. 

According to the tracking system at the NLIHC, New Jersey has obligated or expended 67% of Emergency Rental Assistance I funding, which was then augmented by new funding in the American Rescue Plan.

The maze of programs driven by different rules makes getting a handle on the problem difficult at best. Available monthly compliance reports from the states to the Treasury Department are behind in terms of what is posted for public access.

Moratorium Rules Change

While state programs are pushing to increase the rate at which they can distribute available funds, moratorium rules are shifting. The federal moratorium ended. The attempt by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to impose a 60-day moratorium extension was shot down by the courts.

New Jersey’s moratorium changed when Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed legislation removing protection for some and maintained it for others. New Jersey has begun what may be seen as a phased approach to ending its moratorium. 

Under the new law, tenants are protected from being evicted for owing rent due between March 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2021, or Dec. 31, 2021, depending on income. 

The tenant household still owes the rent and can be sued for it as a debt, but if a tenant is income eligible and submits the required forms, they cannot be evicted for failure to pay. 

The law is complicated, as is everything having to do with the rental assistance effort. The new law also provided additional funds for rental assistance.  

Meanwhile 

The courts are proceeding with the tenant-landlord cases and have set strict consequences for not appearing for a settlement conference or trial.

The justices are trying to avoid the mess that followed the bursting of the housing bubble when foreclosure cases lingered for years. The state is hiring and training legal specialists to help with mediation and avoid cases going to trial.

What will happen is anyone’s guess. Landlords feel they have not been given proper consideration throughout the moratorium process. The First District Legislative team has criticized the state effort because of a perceived lack of attention to landlord issues. Tenant advocates argue that the pressure on households trying to make ends meet is still great and more relief is needed. Billions in funds have been allocated, but the distribution process remains slow and cumbersome.

As the courts begin to deal with the backlog of tenant-landlord cases, it is unclear what the impact of a phasing out of the moratorium will have in Cape May County.  

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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