The Check is in the Mail

We are in the midst of a once in a century winter of a mass death event in America. Our last collective experience of such a thing is just beyond the edge of living memory.

Everything has been upended and remains suspended in mid-air. As the weeks have dragged into months and the tick tock of time has dragged on and delivered us to a bleak and still uncertain place from which we must somehow still plan, looking to an uncertain spring.

In New Jersey, a year into the COVID pandemic, well over 20,000 New Jersey residents have died. and close to 700,000 have had some kind of brush with it.

It’s not inconceivable that we could still see close to ten percent of our state infected and thousands more die.

Yet in Trenton, where time is money, there is debate over how much time tenants should be given to pay back their rent obligations once the COVID moratorium against eviction lapses.

Back in July, the Assembly passed a bill (A-4034/S-2340) that would permit people, that can document their COVID linked economic hardship, to pay down their arrearages over 30 months from when the moratorium has lapsed.

Essex County Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (pictured), the bill’s author, warns that failure to not give the thousands upon thousands of struggling families sufficient time to pay their back rent, on top of their current rent, will “create mass amounts of homelessness in the aftermath of a pandemic.”

Across the country, millions of Americans have lost their jobs with the resulting scale of economic dislocation compared to the Great Depression with the added complication of a once in a century pandemic that’s still not under control.

This month Bloomberg News reported the sharpest rise in U.S. poverty in half a century.

At Thanksgiving the Guardian reported that  “less than half of US households with children feel ‘very confident’ about having enough money to afford the food needed over the next month, according to the US Census Bureau’s latest pandemic survey. A staggering 5.6m households struggled to put enough food on the table in the past week.”

According to a detailed national economic analysis prepared for the  National Council of Housing Agencies in September,  280,000 renter households in New Jersey were sufficient in arrears to be evicted with between 330,000 to 480,000 households also at risk.

Timberlake’s bill also provides relief for homeowners and farmers who have fallen behind in their mortgage to tack on the arrearage to the end of the term of their loan, something she’s says builds on a strategy that Gov. Murphy got some banks to sign on for voluntarily.

“Our Governor did a fantastic thing—a handshake deal with 40 or so lenders who are offering to put the payments at the back end,” Timberlake said during a phone interview. “But there are some lenders out there that weren’t included in the deal and saying we will give you 90 days mortgage forbearance but on the 91st day all that money is expected to be due.”

Back in August, NJ Spotlight reported that Nicholas Kikis, NJAA’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs warned Timberlake’s bill was “unfair to landlords who would be forced to live with unpaid rent for up to 2 and a half years.”

“Once you’ve signaled that rent is no longer a priority, and it can be deferred interest-free, we will start to see a further erosion in rent collections,” Kikis told NJ Spotlight. “That will trigger all the consequences we fear. Landlords who can’t pay their mortgage, property taxes that don’t get paid, declining valuations of the property for property-tax purposes.”

Timberlake counters her bill takes a balanced approach to dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic by seeing to it that over time, landlords will get their monthly installments for back rent on top of their regular monthly rent after the pandemic moratorium protections are lifted.

The Essex County Assemblywoman says her bill will also help backstop “the homeowner occupied landlords” who now “have tenants in their building that are struggling.”

“What we are also talking about is those situations where their renter is having a hard time paying rent and the homeowner who is the landlord is not being given a fair mortgage forbearance—they are now at risk of being homeless themselves,” she said.

Timberlake continued. “New Jersey is still the number one reigning champion for foreclosures in the nation and when you look at the numbers for what makes up the foreclosures in New Jersey you will find that they are mainly coming out of the brown and black neighborhoods in places like Newark, East Orange and Camden.”

Timberlake said she had expected the bill would be posted in the Senate for a vote the same day back in July when it passed in the Assembly by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Yet, Timberlake says, months later the bill is “still in limbo” despite marathon negotiation sessions she undertook at the behest of the Senate President with the New Jersey Apartment Association, the bill’s most formidable opponent.

“The Senate believes that action should be taken to help protect residents from being evicted from their homes,” wrote Richard McGrath, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic Majority, in a statement in response to a query about the bill’s status. “The coronavirus crisis has created more than enough hardships, even the fear of eviction adds to their burdens. But right now, both the state and the federal government have eviction moratoriums in place to protect them.”

McGrath continues. “Plus, nearly $100 million has been expended for rent relief by the state, additional federal funds are being distributed right now, and it is likely that Washington will provide more money for this purpose. There are other potential solutions to consider as well, such as the California proposal to use rental assistance money to pay off this debt. The bottom line is that we are committed to getting a plan in place before any of the moratoriums end.”

Timberlake’s bill, dubbed “the People’s Bill”, enjoys broad based support, including from the NJEA, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, and Fair Share Housing.

But Timberlake believes her bill has stalled because the NJ Apartment Association, advocating for the state’s larger landlords, has an “undue amount of influence in Trenton”.

Judging by the press release put out by NJAA’s political action committee in October of 2019, the trade group can certainly turn out a big Trenton crowd. It’s annual reception in West Orange was described as “the largest single-industry PAC reception of its kind in New Jersey” which drew 35 state legislators.

According to the NJAA PAC’s Jan. 13 filing, the group closed out the calendar year with a $363,400 balance after donating $33,000 in December to the leadership PACs of both parties in both houses, including $20,000 to the NJ Senate Democratic Majority.

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