BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
With almost half of Montclair’s residents paying rent rather than a mortgage and COVID-19 bringing severe job and wage loss, government officials and housing advocates are doing what they can to help.
The state has issued a no-eviction order, and the town has imposed a rent-increase freeze, but for renters who have lost their jobs or a portion of their wages and are still waiting for unemployment to kick in, getting behind in the rent can happen quickly.
Although some mortgage companies are allowing landlords and homeowners to tack on the next three mortgage payments to the end of their mortgages, so far elected officials have done little to offer financial relief for renters.
According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, which created a tracker of renter households living in professionally managed apartments, in April most renters made a payment, whether it was full or partial. As of April 26, 92 percent of apartment renter households in the 11.5 million professionally managed units had made some sort of payment for the month.
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That’s roughly 4 percentage points below last April and 3 percentage points below this March.
“With 26 million people (and counting) without jobs, those are positive performance metrics,” according to the housing council.
But the Rent Payment Tracker found that the payment number had dropped to 87.7 percent by May 13.
With more than 1,130,000 New Jerseyans now collecting unemployment and the unknown as to when the economy will pick up, housing experts are concerned that things will only get worse. New Jersey last week extended unemployment benefits for another 13 weeks.
Last week, the Montclair housing advocacy group HOMECorp held an information session on renter rights.
Before the pandemic, rent payments were typically due by the first of the month, and the landlord could set a date when penalties would kick in if the rent was not paid. If the rents are not paid the landlord could file an eviction order for failure to comply.
With the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy issued two executive orders. On March 19 the governor immediately suspended evictions throughout the state, with the only exception being for safety reasons. The moratorium will be in place for two months following the end of the public health emergency. On April 24 Murphy directed landlords to allow tenants to use their security deposit toward rent payments.
Although courts are closed and evictions are suspended, rents must be paid on time, or penalties will accrue that eventually will have to be paid.
Security deposits can be credited toward rent during the public health emergency and up to 60 days after it ends. The tenant, in writing, must instruct the landlord to use the security deposit. The security deposit must be replenished at lease renewal or within six months of the end of the public health emergency, whichever is later.
For Section 8 tenants, evictions for nonpayment of rent have been suspended through July 24, but the suspension will most likely be extended beyond that date, HOMECorp officials said. No late fees can be charged through July. If the renter has had an income loss, renters can call their voucher provider, either the Montclair Section 8 office or the Essex County field office.
Once the eviction moratorium is lifted, landlords may file to evict, security deposits will need to be replenished, and late fees will have to be paid.
If tenants break a lease, they will still need to cover any rents and damage.
Failure to be in good standing during or after tenancy could impact a renter’s credit score and ability to lease a new apartment in the future, HOMECorp officials warned.
If a landlord attempts to force a tenant out, officials suggest calling the police and HOMECorp, which would intervene on the tenant’s behalf.
The township has issued a rent-increase freeze during the COVID-19 state of emergency. It is retroactive to May 1 and will remain in effect until Aug. 1.
The freeze also prevents any increase in additional charges for tenants in all residential rental units in the township.
The Township Council passed a resolution declaring an emergency in order to have the ordinance take effect retroactively and immediately.
“In light of the ongoing financial hardships, the severe disruption to the economy at all levels, and in the spirit of the moratorium on the execution of warrants of eviction, the township has determined that the immediate stability of rents is necessary for the public interest and is best served by placing an immediate, temporary moratorium on all rent increases,” according to the ordinance.
“The 90-day rent-freeze ordinance is a township government effort to provide additional relief to residents experiencing housing insecurity and financial difficulties.”
Exemptions are granted for rental units in properties that are owner-occupied with no more than one additional rental unit; units in properties exempt from local rent regulation by state or federal law; and units in which the rent is determined as a function of household income.
State law created in 2008 says that local rent-control laws cannot apply to multiple-unit dwellings constructed after the effective date of that law, for 30 years following completion of construction.
Renters might qualify for rental assistance through the Montclair Salvation Army (973-744-3312), Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. (973-744-9094), Catholic Charities (973-266-7969), or the United Way’s ALICE Fund, which offers $500 in cash assistance for eligible families who lost income during the pandemic.