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NJ Gov. Murphy Signed the Executive Order Enacting the Moratorium to Protect Tenants from Illegal Lockouts
HI INDIA NEWS DESK
JERSEY CITY, NJ- Hundreds of New Jersey tenants have been illegally locked out of their home during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the eviction moratorium that remains in place through mid-June.
Now, more than a year after Gov. Phil Murphy signed the executive order enacting the moratorium, the Attorney General’s office has released new guidelines for law enforcement agencies to help restore tenants to their homes.
“The directive outlines clear and easy steps for law enforcement officers to follow. By issuing this directive and educating the public this evening, we can reduce the number of illegal evictions in this state,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said during a webinar Tuesday night attended by housing advocacy groups and housing lawyers.
After thousands of New Jerseyans suddenly lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent, evictions due to nonpayment were halted under Executive Order 106, which extends 60 days after the public health emergency expires — currently through mid-June. Eviction notices can still be filed to the courts, but no landlord-tenant trials are being held, except in emergent cases.
When tenants did find themselves locked out or their possessions removed from the home and called the police, there were many times law enforcement wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, panelists at the webinar said.
The directive to the state’s 38,000 cops will clarify guidance on how to respond to illegal lockout calls. The confusion stems from a 2006 bill that then-Gov. Richard Codey signed making it a crime to remove tenants without a court order, and other enforcement guidelines issued in 2009, Grewal said.
Under the directive, law enforcement officers must determine if an illegal eviction is occurring, issue warnings to the landlord or property owners and ensure that the illegally evicted tenants are immediately restored to the premises. If the warnings are ignored, the officers should charge the landlord or property owner with complaint-summons, which could be a fourth-degree crime.
Jessica Kiton, senior managing attorney at Newark-based nonprofit Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, said while police are often sympathetic after arriving on scene, there were times officers weren’t sure what steps to take.
“We need it to be consistent for tenants — it can’t be that it’s the luck of the draw for what response they’re getting,” she said. “I’m really hopeful and grateful for this directive because I think that’s where we’re headed.”
She added that the uniform messaging will make tenants feel more comfortable about reaching out to local police, as well as send a clear message to landlords that illegal evictions will not be tolerated. She also noted aside the lockouts, there’s been an uptick in shutting off utilities or harassing tenants to a point they self-evict.
The Attorney General’s office has received 17 written complaints regarding landlords illegally evicting tenants since April 2020, said spokesman Peter Aseltine, but stressed there are likely many, many more. The Volunteer Justice Lawyers say there have been hundreds across the state, with illegal evictions ramping up since the fall.
Since the coronavirus pandemic upended the economy and led to 1.8 million New Jersyans to seek unemployment insurance, the state has opened up two rounds of the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program for residents who are in arrears due to the public health emergency.
The first $100 million round opened in July, and was so highly anticipated the website crashed on the first day of applications. Lt. Gov. Shiela Oliver, who oversees the Department of Community Affairs, said it helped 15,000 families out of 60,000 who applied, and included paying rent forward for 12 months for some families.
Another $353 million round opened on March 22. More than 45,100 New Jersey tenants or landlords have applied for rental assistance as of Wednesday morning, said Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. Applications remain open, and will stay open until the funds are depleted.