Residential Evictions During the Pandemic
Many people are struggling financially due to the extra pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is difficult not knowing if you will be able to afford rent and the repercussions that could come from that. Now more than ever, it is important that you know your rights versus your landlord’s rights in order to be prepared. Below, we will discuss what there is to know about residential evictions during the pandemic and when it is time to get a lawyer involved.
Eviction Moratoriums: State and Federal
In New Jersey, Governor Philip Murphy issued an executive order that has suspended evictions throughout the state. This is called an eviction moratorium. Essentially, except for under rare circumstances, no one can be removed from their home as a result of an eviction proceeding while this executive order is in effect. Furthermore, the moratorium applies to all pre-existing eviction orders. All previously issued eviction orders are suspended and you cannot be removed from your home under the state eviction moratorium.
The eviction moratorium in New Jersey will last until two months after Governor Murphy declares an end to the current public health crisis. So far, the Governor has extended the official public health emergency order multiple times since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. The most recent extension of the public health emergency will last until December 22, 2020, meaning the eviction moratorium will last until February 22, 2021. However, if Governor Murphy were to extend the state of emergency again, the eviction moratorium could last longer for New Jersey residents.
You may have heard that the CDC also issued a federal order in September that prevents residential lockouts through December 31, 2020. New Jersey residents can ignore the CDC order for now because it is less protective than the state issued eviction moratorium.
Court and Eviction Trials
The courts are currently only holding eviction trials in emergency cases. The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered in July that most landlord-tenant trials be suspended until further notice. Under the order, missed rent payments do not constitute an emergency case unless there was a tenant death involved. Landlords can still file eviction complaints against tenants even though most trials are suspended at this time. Therefore, you may still receive an eviction complaint in the mail or posted at your residence. If you are in the middle of an eviction proceeding and have an upcoming court date, you should not go to court. You will not be penalized for missing your court date.
Moreover, the order instructs landlord-tenant courts to schedule remote intake and pretrial / settlement conferences. You may receive a notice from the court directing you to appear at a pretrial / settlement conference via telephone or video. If you get such a notice, contact a legal services organization, share the complaint you received with an organization or lawyer who has agreed to help you, and remember you do not have to settle. If you did not receive a complaint prior to being called for a pretrial / settlement conference, share that information with your lawyer and the court. If you choose not to settle, your case will be scheduled for trial once the courts resume eviction trials. Again, you cannot be locked out or removed from your home until two months after Governor Murphy ends the public health emergency, regardless of pending complaints or trials.
Rent is Still Due
Unfortunately, rent is still due on scheduled rent payment days per your lease agreement. If you are struggling to make rent payments and need some guidance on how to address your rent situation with your landlord, call the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency for free counseling over the phone. Any rent payments you miss will become back-rent that you owe. One way or another, you will probably have to pay all the rent money you owe per your lease agreement to avoid future eviction.
Governor Murphy has also passed an executive order that allows New Jersey residents to direct their landlords to use their security deposit to pay rent. Your security deposit funds can be used to either pay your rent in full, or to make up the shortfall amount. Tenants will not be obligated to pay any further security deposit in relation to their current lease agreement. Tenants will, however, still be responsible for any money landlords expend that would have been reimbursable via the security deposit, for example, damages to the property. If you are planning on renewing your lease, you will be required to replenish the security deposit in full either six months after the public health state of emergency is lifted or the day the lease agreement is renewed, whichever date is later.
Like rent, utility payments are also due as normal. If you cannot pay your utility bills now, you will owe the money later. Fortunately, Executive Order 190 suspends residential utility and water shutoffs until March 15, 2021. The order also requires resumption of services that have been discontinued and forbids the imposition of late fees during the public health emergency period. As far as cable and telecommunication providers go, they must first check with the tenant to see if any school-aged children are using the internet services for educational purposes. If so, the provider may not terminate service until March 15, 2021. If not, the provider must offer an interest-free payment plan and may not disconnect services if the customer agrees to the plan. For low-income households, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) may be able to provide some assistance with utility bills. You can also check the website of the Board of Public Utilities for a list of agencies that offer assistance.
Additional Housing Assistance
For any additional assistance regarding rent, the DCA posts summaries of different rental assistance programs. You can use the DCAid portal to see if you are eligible for any of the programs listed. You may also consider reaching out to your landlord and explaining your situation in order to work out a payment plan.
What if Your Landlord Has Locked You Out?
If your landlord has locked you out, know this is an illegal crime. Call your local police department, they are required to help you get back into your home. If the police refuse to help, or state this is a “civil” matter that doesn’t involve them, ask them to look at the N.J.S.A. 2C:33-11.1 statue.
When to Seek a Lawyer’s Help
If your landlord is blatantly ignoring any of the official executive orders discussed above, it may be time to contact a professional lawyer to discuss the specifics of your case. Additionally, if you have received an eviction complaint or a notice to attend a virtual pretrial / settlement conference, contact a lawyer for legal assistance. David Kaplan, attorney at law, believes everyone deserves quality legal representation. He has dedicated his 30 year career to helping those that have had their rights infringed upon and handles every case personally. If you want to book a free case consultation, visit New Jersey Lawyer David H. Kaplan’s website.