NJ Dept. of Community Affairs Slow to Distribute Rental Assistance Funds as Housing Crisis Looms

Most renter protections will remain in place for at least two months following the end of the Covid-19 emergency period. However, without substantive legislative action on unpaid rent accumulated during the pandemic, New Jersey will see an unprecedented amount of evictions when protections expire in the fall or winter.

(Photo/Karolina Grabowska)

Only 11% of CVERAP Phase II Funds have been distributed in the past three months, with large chunks dispensed to wealthy counties with lower poverty rates.

The prospective housing crisis remains a top concern of tenants, landlords, and lawmakers in the New Jersey State legislature.

Like many states, the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified an already alarming rate of housing insecurity in New Jersey. Now, the state remains in a tenuous and ambiguous position.

Governor Phil Murphy has signed legislation to end the Covid-19 public health emergency, but several pandemic-related orders - such as the state eviction and utilities moratorium and a task force created to oversee federal COVID-19 funds - remain on the books for at least a few more months.

However, the governor still has the ability to rescind or modify these orders at any time. Pressure from landlord groups and real estate corporations may play a role in Murphy’s decision to extend or rescind the moratoriums. Although they are still currently in place, there is a possibility Murphy can totally eliminate eviction and utilities moratorium prior to January 1st, 2022.

Tenants groups believe they need more certainty and more assistance from the administration. Landlord groups, who have strongly supported an end to the eviction moratorium, say they’ve been significantly ignored by state and federal aid.

The potential housing crisis is quite dire. Although federal and New Jersey state eviction moratoriums have prohibited the physical eviction of tenants for unpaid rent during the pandemic, New Jersey landlords are still able to file for eviction due to late or unpaid rent payments.There are currently over 62,000 pending evictions filed by New Jersey landlords since March of 2020. Approximately 26% of pending eviction cases were filed in Essex County.

However, just looking at the number of eviction filings may underestimate the number of New Jerseyans who could be affected by this crisis. Given that eviction hearings are currently suspended, and many landlords are waiting for the moratorium to be lifted to officially file for eviction, the true number of evictions forthcoming are much higher. According to a special New Jersey Courts report, 194,000 more eviction filings are expected by the start of 2022.

Of course not all eviction filings end in evictions, as courts can rule in favor of tenants for a variety of reasons. However, eviction filings are publicly available information. Landlords, although not currently permitted to lock tenants out for unpaid rent, are still able to report inconsistent rent payments to credit agencies, making it harder for tenants to find suitable apartments and homes in the future.

According to an estimate by Stout, a global advisory firm, 450,000 households could be at risk for homelessness. Black and Brown communities are at a disproportionate risk for eviction. Mass housing insecurity is linked to poorer physical and mental health, depressed local economies, and an increased reliance on homeless shelters. According to the Stout report on the potential impact of Covid-19 evictions in New Jersey, the economic, social, and health impacts could cost the state billions of dollars “if immediate action is not taken to provide renters the opportunity to repay unpaid rent and remain in their homes.”

In the midst of this housing crisis, the provision of state rental assistance has been sluggish. Data from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs indicates that as of June 4th, just 11% of the $353 million in funding from the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program Phase II (CVERAP Phase II) has been delivered. The DCA began accepting applications in March 2021.

The county-by-county percentage breakdown of CVERAP Phase II funds is as follows:

Atlantic County: 3.5 percent

Bergen County: 10.1 percent

Burlington County: 8.2 percent

Camden County: 5.5 percent

Cape May County: .2 percent

Cumberland County: 1.3 percent

Essex County: 16.2 percent

Gloucester County: 1.7 percent

Hudson County: 11.2 percent

Hunterdon County: .25 percent

Mercer County: 2 percent

Middlesex County: 8.5 percent

Monmouth County: 3.3 percent

Morris County: 5.1 percent

Ocean County: 3.5 percent

Passaic County: 9.7 percent

Salem County: .4 percent

Somerset County: 2.4 percent

Sussex County: .3 percent

Union County: 5.2 percent

Warren County: .4 percent

It seems a disproportionate amount of rental assistance has been distributed to Bergen County, which had a 5.7% poverty rate and a median income of over $100,000, according to the 2019 Census. Whereas Cumberland County only received 1.3% of the distributed CVERP Phase II funds while suffering from a pre-pandemic poverty rate above 17%. Similarly, Mercer County is another outlier, receiving just 2% of CVERAP Phase II funds, with a pre-pandemic poverty rate of 10.8% and a median income

This is not to discount poverty that exists in Bergen County. Rather, the distribution of funds should more accurately reflect the rates of housing insecurity and poverty in New Jersey counties.

The $353 million in CVERP Phase II funds are intended to be distributed to low- and moderate-income households in New Jersey that have experienced a significant reduction in income due to the pandemic. The funds are distributed on an ongoing basis as applications are received. Clearly, the funds are not being distributed in the most effective way possible.

Joe Johnson, Law Fellow at the ACLU-NJ, says multiple factors have contributed to the insufficient roll-out of CVERP Phase II. The online-only application, short application deadline, and insufficient marketing of the program hampered the effectiveness of CVERAP Phase I, which has carried over to CVERAP Phase II. Johnson said policymakers need to be more “intentional and thoughtful” when designing rental assistance programs or they run the risk of “contributing to the digital divide” and hampering the goals of the program.

It’s clear lawmakers need to do more than throw money at the problem. The DCA needs a more coordinated and thorough public outreach program to inform New Jersey residents about the available funds.

Homelessness was already rising in New Jersey prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. New Jersey is now on the brink of an unprecedented eviction crisis that will throw economies, communities, and lives into turmoil for the foreseeable future. Extending the eviction moratorium is a welcome first step but New Jersey tenants need more assistance.

Editor's Note: James is an aspiring journalist and media relations professional for non-profit organizations. He is currently completing his master’s degree in communication from Baylor University.