These are hard times for New Jersey.
Over the last four months, over 1 million workers suffered sudden job losses. These workers and their families are experiencing severe stress in trying to pay for food, healthcare, and housing for themselves and their children. A disproportionate number of the most severely distressed families are African-American or Latino. At the same time, thousands march in the streets demanding a remedy to the systemic racism that permeates our society as exemplified by the murder of George Floyd.
At this critical time, families across New Jersey with lost income due to the pandemic face the threat of eviction and foreclosure. Trenton must act fast in order to prevent mass displacement of the very communities that the protests have reemphasized are in a worse position because of decades of discrimination — including redlining and discriminatory government policies.
We understand and appreciate the decisions Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature made to curb the spread of the virus and to mitigate the economic impact the shutdown has had on working families. It was necessary to shut the economy down to prevent more widespread infection of COVID-19. The governor was correct to institute a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to prevent the displacement of thousands. The governor was right to devote $100 million in federal CARES Act funding to help address housing needs.
But these measures are just the beginning of what will be needed to protect low- and middle-income New Jerseyans. We must do more to prevent mass displacement and a prolonged, severe housing crisis.
While families who have lost jobs because of the pandemic are currently protected, the day foreclosure and eviction moratoriums are lifted could deliver unimaginable financial ruin. If nothing is done, residents could be immediately on the hook for months of accumulated unpaid rent or mortgage payments. And many of those families, disproportionately African-American and Latino, could find themselves homeless.
Economies do not recover overnight. A person who is unemployed today may not immediately get a job back when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Consider someone who works as a waiter at a restaurant. Even when the pandemic subsides, the restaurant industry is likely to suffer for many months because people may be afraid to go out to eat. This reality will apply to numerous industries and will depress the earnings of thousands.
To prevent widespread eviction after the moratorium is lifted, renters need the ability to make up any missed payments not covered by this program over an extended period of time so they aren’t forced to choose between paying rent and paying for groceries. At a time when a global pandemic is hitting communities of color the hardest, we need to ensure renters, who are disproportionately African-American and Latino, can remain in their homes.
And thousands of homeowners who have lost their jobs are unable to make monthly mortgage payments. Lawmakers must pass extended loan forbearance, thus allowing homeowners to pay back any missed payments at the end of their mortgage. Homeowners should be protected from having to make additional interest or late payments.
Privately administered mortgage deferral programs aren’t enough. They subject homeowners to a patchwork quilt of different rules. We need a statewide standard.
Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake has proposed legislation to address the crisis that was passed out of the Assembly Housing Committee, chaired by Benjie Wimberly, Tuesday. Legislations sponsored by Senator Troy Singleton has already passed the Senate.
The Legislature must quickly send a package to the governor’s desk combining the best elements of these proposals, including a realistic repayment schedule capping the amount of money families are forced to pay in housing. Landlords who received big tax breaks from the federal government should also be forced to pass along that benefit to their tenants.
Trenton must resist powerful special interests, including big banks and corporate landlords who are resisting efforts to keep families in their homes during this difficult time. Instead, our elected leaders must work to support those who need the most help and realize that “Black Lives Matter” is not just a slogan; it demands action.
Our leaders must act now to institute rental and mortgage support programs to prevent low- and middle-income New Jerseyans from losing everything. If we do nothing, a devastating new crisis will emerge that will set us back even further.