The New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund (NJPRF), a non-profit organization created to address the health and economic crisis in New Jersey caused by the coronavirus pandemic, is providing $2.35 million for critically needed free legal and counseling services to thousands of people and families facing eviction.

The NJPRF’s Housing Stability Project grant will allow two leading organizations to significantly expand their pool of legal and housing counselors to help more than 10,000 at-risk tenants across the state.

The Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey (HCDNNJ) will receive $1,886,200 to provide increased outreach and counseling services for tenants at risk of eviction while Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) will receive $465,000 to expand its organizational capacity to serve significantly more at-risk renters.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, leaving many families worried about keeping a roof over their heads,” said New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, the founding chair of NJRPF. “We hope this grant will help stave off a pending eviction crisis by helping at-risk tenants and landlords understand their rights and navigate a complex system during these incredibly trying times.”

The abrupt closing of the economy quickly took New Jersey’s unemployment rate from 3.7% to 17%. Renters are more likely than homeowners to be employed by industries hit hardest by the economic fallout from the pandemic. An estimated 397,000 renters have lost income due to the shutdown, putting them at risk for eviction, according to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California Berkeley. Of those, 187,300 were barely able to afford rent before the pandemic and are considered at a very high risk for eviction.

Renters that are the most vulnerable are minorities, single female heads of households, domestic violence victims, the chronically ill (including those who have mental illness and addiction), and undocumented immigrants.

Governor Phil Murphy issued an executive order in March that suspended evictions throughout the state. But the eviction moratorium only remains in effect for two months after the governor declares an end to the COVID-19 crisis and it does not prevent eviction filings, with tens of thousands of cases filed since the pandemic began.   

“The Housing Stability Project is designed to be proactive,” NJPRF CEO Josh Weinreich said. “We believe there is an opportunity and responsibility to address this issue before it’s too late.”

The grant will allow HCDNNJ to recruit, hire and train teams of experts placed regionally, to advise residents directly and assist current housing counselors with their cases. The funding will also allow HCDNNJ to conduct large-scale outreach to tenants who are not only at risk but are unaware of their rights.
 
“Based on our Network’s experience helping survivors recover after Superstorm Sandy, we know how to reach the most impacted individuals and hardest hit communities,” said Staci Berger, HCDNNJ president and chief executive officer. 

“We will use our extensive network of 250 members and community-based organizations across the state to provide outreach, counseling services, referrals, and tenant and landlord education,” Berger said. 

HCDNNJ and its members have the ability to reach 250,000 New Jerseyans and provide housing counseling services to more than 10,000 renters.
 
“We are extremely grateful for this grant as it will allow our organization to increase the number of successful landlord-tenant settlements and result in a dismissal of the eviction notices that were filed with the courts during a moratorium on evictions,” HCDNNJ Vice President and COO Sharon K. Barker said. “It will also result in a substantial number of referrals for legal and support services.”

VLJ, which currently has six full-time attorneys who work on a range of issues, will use the funding to hire four additional full-time attorneys who will be dedicated solely to tenancy cases. In addition, the funding will be used to train over 200 pro-bono lawyers and cover operational and administrative expenses.

VLJ has long standing relationships with community-based service providers and Seton Hall Law School, Rutgers Law School, and blue-chip law firms.

“With the increased capacity through the NJPRF grant, VLJ will have the equivalent of five staff attorneys dedicated to eviction defense work” said Cathy Keenan, the executive director of VLJ.  “With a crisis of this magnitude looming, NJ will need the talents and expertise of legal services attorneys and pro bono attorneys from across the state to assist tenants. It is a real call to action for the private bar.”

Both organizations—in coordination with their network of partner sites—will launch a major public awareness and outreach campaign to 250,000 New Jerseyans, informing tenants and landlords of their rights and how/where to access pre-eviction services.

 “This project will bring both of these organizations together and maximize their capacity to refer clients in need of services to each other,” said Brett Tanzman, a member of the NJPRF board and Counsel to the Wilf Family Foundations.  “Additionally, this grant will bring together landlords and tenants and help create efficiencies in the system.”
Renters who need assistance but do not require a lawyer can be referred to one of HCDNNJ’s agencies for pre-eviction counseling. HCDNNJ will be able to refer tenants whose dispute is more advanced and complicated to VLJ for pro-bono legal services. 

VLJ relies on pro-bono lawyers to assist in handling cases.  To learn more about volunteering click here http://www.vljnj.org.

TAPinto Newark is a media partner of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.