Newark, NJ - An ordinance that would have given legal representation to low-income city residents facing eviction was put on hold Thursday at a city council meeting because it was unclear how the measure would be funded.
An ad hoc committee of several community groups that worked with the city on the ordinance emailed council members asking them not to approve the measure because certain language needed clarification. For example, it did not specify to whom in the city the legal organizations or firms would answer to and it didn't spell out how the program would be structured based on services that already exist in the city.
Newark’s program is crafted after a similar idea that was launched last year in New York City.
"The thing had been literally copied and pasted from the New York City ordinance and somewhat modified to strip out that New York language," said James Powell, who is part of a housing advocacy group known as Homes for All Newark that is on the ad hoc committee. "But nothing substantive was put back in so, it looked a little half-baked."
The ad hoc committee consists of law professors, housing experts and community organizations, including the Ironbound Community Corporation, David Troutt from Rutgers Law School, Paula Franzese from Seton Hall Law School and Essex Newark Legal Services.
A person who does not make more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the program. Those who are eligible would be connected with either a non-profit or for-profit legal provider that is able to give pro bono representation in eviction court.
The program has been in the works for months. In May, Mayor Ras Baraka announced the city's plan to establish the program alongside New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
New York City’s program was expected to cost $155 million annually when it was first unveiled. Officials there anticipated the program would help 400,000 residents, which is higher than what is projected in Newark.
In July, the city announced that McCarter & English would dedicate one fellowship position at its law firm to provide assistance to certain people who are facing eviction.
It would be a huge undertaking for one person. There were about 17,000 eviction filings in Newark in 2016, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab.
The program that sought approval from city council on Thursday appeared to be much more expansive. Powell said he believed the ordinance intended to utilize more than one law organization or individuals for the program.
The city would also require the legal service provider to submit an annual report that tracks outcomes of the program, how many people were covered and certain demographics.
The city’s corporation counsel, Kenyatta Stewart, told TAPinto Newark that city officials tried reaching out to members of the ad hoc committee, but they were away on vacation and never responded before Thursday's council meeting.
“We have already begun the process of meeting with them - the group that signed onto the email,” he said after Thursday’s meeting. “From day one we have met with them a number of times. ”
The ordinance on Thursday was deferred by city council after they received the ad hoc committee's concerns. Ordinances that are deferred are intended to again be voted on at the following regularly scheduled council meeting, but that may not be the case here.
Powell said that if the language of the ordinance is drastically changed, it would probably have to go back to first reading to allow residents to comment on it before it's approved.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article cited a Rutgers study which stated 40,000 evictions were sought in Newark in 2016. That number reflects all of Essex County, not just Newark.