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Keeping Tenants Safe During a Pandemic


Eviction has always flattened families. Children may lose time in school and even their place in the school they had attended. Families end up in shelters or become temporary residents in the often overcrowded and unstable homes of family and friends. Jobs are lost in the shuffle. Routines are disrupted. Possessions are lost. A new home gets more difficult to find, as landlords exclude tenants who show up in court records as having been evicted before.

These hardships fall disproportionately on Black renters, who are evicted at twice the rate of their white counterparts nationwide. And Black women are particular targets. As Matthew Desmond put it in his 2016 book Evicted, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Now add COVID-19.

The Pandemic

COVID-19 added two sickening ingredients to this already toxic stew: (1) massive unemployment and under-employment, with the resulting loss of income, and (2) an increased risk of infection and death in congregate shelters or other overcrowded spaces.

The numbers are staggering. Nationwide, roughly 30-40 percent of tenants are at risk of eviction. That’s 30-40 million people. If anything like this number of households is displaced, infection rates will soar.

The Response

  • Supporting an eviction moratorium: We urged New Jersey officials to put a hold on evictions. On March 19, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order 106, placing a moratorium on the enforcement of eviction judgments. As of this writing, that moratorium remains in place.
  • Broadening the reach of the eviction moratorium: We advocated with the Governor’s Office to issue Administrative Orders 2020-08 and 2020-09 to clarify that long-term residents of hotels and motels are protected from eviction.
  • Educating the public: We created and have repeatedly updated FAQs designed to help tenants and homeowners understand how they are protected from eviction during the pandemic, as well as their continuing obligations to pay their rent or mortgage. In 2020, more than 89,000 distinct visitors to the firm’s website viewed these FAQs.
  • Building a coalition: We worked with longtime pro bono partners to convene and sustain a coalition of housing and racial justice advocates to address the crisis collectively.
  • Advocating with the courts: On behalf of and in conjunction with the coalition, we advocated with the New Jersey courts to:
    • Comply with the federal CARES Act by preventing landlords who received federal assistance from filing eviction complaints for nonpayment of rent during periods when the Act prohibited such filings
    • Protect due process for tenants in virtual settlement conferences the court convened to promote the resolution of pending cases
    • Provide more accurate and complete information to tenants and landlords about the eviction process
    • Make extensive changes to the form landlord-tenant complaint to ensure that landlords have met the requirements for filing in the first place
    • Improve a proposed court rule to shield certain eviction records so that landlords cannot rely on them to shun tenants who have eviction histories
    • Consider additional reforms that would offer relief for tenants during and following the pandemic
  • Drafting and revising proposed legislation: We worked with coalition partners on bills aimed at protecting tenants from eviction based on rental debt arising from COVID-19 hardship and allocating funds to cover some of that debt.
  • Stopping illegal lockouts: We helped draft a coalition letter asking the New Jersey Attorney General to work with local police departments to stop landlords from illegally locking tenants out of their homes.
  • Representing tenants facing eviction: We continued to represent individual tenants throughout the crisis, not only to prevent their displacement, but also to work out payment plans that will reduce their accumulated debt
Keeping Tenants Safe During a Pandemic
The Eviction, Eldzier Cortor/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 1939-1940. Created with the support of the Federal Work Projects Administration, the painting depicts the resolve of African American women in the face of economic dislocation.