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As Cases in Newark Rise, NJ Announces New Measures to Protect Tenants from Illegal Evictions

By rlsmetro on
New Jersey

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver, who serves as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), today announced new measures to protect tenants from illegal evictions, which have put families at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

They will host a virtual town hall today at 6 p.m. to call attention to this critical issue, raise awareness about tenant rights, and discuss the new efforts to protect tenants.

 

Officials said in March 2020, Governor Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 106 halting execution of eviction orders until the end of the health emergency. That order and a federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are intended to ensure that individuals and families struggling financially due to the COVID crisis do not face housing insecurity or homelessness.

 

However, some landlords, unable to evict tenants lawfully, have taken matters into their own hands, resorting to illegal lockouts or shutting off utilities to force tenants from their homes.

 

Register Here for Tenant Protection Town Hall

 

The city of Newark has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic and the police have received an influx of calls relating to landlord and tenant disputes, with police officials saying that these calls have increased at least tenfold.

 

In Newark, there have been reports of the landlord changing the locks while a tenant is at work or tenants coming home to find that their belongings have been placed in the hallway or on the sidewalk. There have also been reports of the landlord shutting off water in some homes.

 

Additionally, landlords have been targeting their tenants financially, with reports coming in of landlords raising their tenants' rent and charging what are being described as unreasonably inflated late fees.

 

Police in Newark have also said that they have had to respond to a number of calls of landlord/tenant disputes that have turned physical where one or both the landlord and the tenant have been assaulted. 

 

Responding to reports from tenants and a call for action from advocates, particularly Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Attorney General Grewal today issued a statewide directive to all law enforcement agencies about their important role in preventing illegal lockouts and restoring tenants to their homes when such illegal actions occur.

 

AG Directive 2021-2 provides enhanced guidance to police regarding their duties under a state law that makes it a crime for landlords and others to evict tenants through illegal lockouts or other means since only an officer of the court can execute an eviction order.

 

To further assist with preventing evictions, DCA awarded $1.25 million late last year to the nonprofit Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey to develop and implement outreach strategies to raise awareness of tenant rights, the eviction process, and eviction prevention resources across the state. 

 

And this month, DCA launched the second phase of the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has allocated $353 million to provide up to 12 months of rental assistance to low- and moderate-income households that have had a substantial reduction in income as a result of the pandemic.

 

The program, which is aimed at preventing a wave of evictions after the moratorium is lifted, is actively accepting applications. And since many tenants struggling to pay their rent are also unable to pay their utilities, DCA assists residents with their utility bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) and Universal Service Fund (USF) Programs. More information about these assistance programs can be found on the DCA website: nj.gov/dca.

 

“One of the first executive orders I issued when the COVID-19 pandemic began was a moratorium on evictions, because, with all of the losses and hardships our residents are facing, the last thing they need to worry about is having a secure home for themselves and their families,” said Governor Phil Murphy.

 

“Even though the moratorium on evictions remains in place, we are aware that people are still being locked out of their rental units because they’ve not been able to keep up with their rent and we want everyone to know that this lockout activity – whether it is a renter or a homeowner – is illegal and should be reported to local authorities,” said Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, who serves as DCA Commissioner.

 

“Illegal lockouts have become a growing problem for far too many tenants across the state. In addition to being illegal, this practice is dangerous, especially in the middle of a global health emergency,” said Jessica Kitson, Senior Managing Attorney for Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. “I am deeply grateful to Attorney General Grewal for taking the necessary steps to address the problem and ensure that tenants facing an illegal lockout receive the help they need from law enforcement."

 

The law-making illegal evictions a crime, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-11.1, specifies that a person commits a disorderly persons offense if, after being warned by a law enforcement officer or other public official, they (1) take possession of a residential property or effectuate a forcible entry or detainer of the property without lawful execution of a warrant for possession, or (2) after such an illegal action, they refuse to restore the tenant immediately to possession of the residence. If the person was convicted of the same offense within the past five years, it is upgraded to a fourth-degree crime.

 

Directive 2021-2 outlines a four-step process that law enforcement officers must follow when responding to a report of an illegal eviction:

  1. Determine Facts Regarding Eviction or Threatened Eviction. In seeking answers to these questions, officers should ascertain whether an illegal eviction has occurred and not provide legal advice to tenants or others parties. If officers believe that a person requires legal advice about their housing status but cannot afford private counsel, officers should encourage the individual to contact Legal Services of New Jersey at 888-LSNJ-LAW.  
  2. Issue Warnings to Responsible Persons. If a violation has occurred or appears likely to occur, then the officers should instruct the relevant persons to immediately cease their illegal conduct and warn them that failure to do so will result in charges.  
  3. Ensure Any Illegally Evicted Occupants Are Immediately Restored to the Premises. Officers should ensure the evicting party immediately allows the occupants to reenter and reoccupy the premises. Because the law says that reentry should occur “without delay,” officers should ensure the process takes no longer than is absolutely necessary to complete.  
  4. If Warnings Goes Unheeded, Issue Complaint-Summons. If officers issue a warning to an individual during Step 2 and the person nonetheless violates the law, then the officers should promptly charge that person by complaint-summons. As soon as the warned individual indicates their refusal to comply with the law, the officer may issue the complaint-summons. If the defendant has been previously convicted of a violation during the past five years, then the violation should be charged as a fourth-degree crime.

Directive 2021-2 can be found at https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-Directive-2021-2_Illegal_Evictions.pdf  

A two-page summary describing the role of law enforcement officers in preventing illegal evictions is posted at

https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/Summary-on-AG-Directive-2021-2.pdf

 

The directive will be disseminated to every law enforcement officer and prosecutor in New Jersey. In addition, law enforcement agencies are required to reinforce the directive during roll calls, academy service training, and continuing education programs to ensure that all officers and prosecutors are educated about their responsibilities under N.J.S.A. 33-11.1.