NEWARK, NJ — A bill designed to stave off a flood of impending foreclosures and evictions made it out of New Jersey’s Assembly Housing Committee on Tuesday, signaling potential forbearance and repayment agreements for Newark homeowners and renters struggling with the costs of COVID-19.

Under state Executive Order 106, evictions were suspended for the duration of the stay-at-home order, which Gov. Phil Murphy lifted on June 9. But with the moratorium set to expire in 60 days, New Jerseyans who suffered income losses are overwhelmed with months of mortgage and rent due in a lump sum payment. 

Bill A4226, which combines legislation from Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex) with legislation that had previously passed the Senate sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), would establish statewide standards to keep families impacted by COVID-19 in their homes. Mortgage companies would have to enter into forbearance agreements with homeowners to give them an opportunity to catch up on any missed payments at the end of their mortgage terms. 

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Renters would be allowed up to six months to make up every month of missed payments, according to the bill. Landlords and lenders would also be prohibited from damaging the credit of their tenants and borrowers for any payments missed due to COVID-19. 

In Newark, a city that’s about 80% renters, the legislation is welcome support, but organizers emphasize that it’s a life jacket, not a full rescue. Maria Lopez-Nunez, Deputy Director for Ironbound Community Corporation and one of 40 advocates who testified in support of A4226, helped launch the Compassionate NJ coalition in response to the need for tenant and homeowner protections.

“Our coalition was formed pretty early on because people started losing their jobs before the lockdown even started,” she said. “In New Jersey, we have a particularly skewed power relationship, where courts function as an eviction factory. Ninety percent of landlords are represented by a lawyer, and 99% of tenants are not represented by anyone at all.”

If it clears both legislative floors, the bill would essentially help prevent an already urgent situation from crossing over into a humanitarian emergency. Without some kind of plan, the courts and social service system will become overburdened with newly evicted families, giving way to an increase in homelessness. 

“I just want a survival piece of legislation. It feels like everyone is just drowning in the water, because the stress of not being able to pay your rent when you have a family and small children, we’re not talking about something heroic here,” Lopez-Nunez added.  “We’re just trying to throw life jackets out.” 

Yolanda Stokes, a Newark resident who works for the South Ward Children's Alliance helping individuals navigate government services, lost one source of income due to COVID-19. While she’s staying afloat for now thanks to her employer’s rental assistance grant, she’s not sure if her contract will be renewed and worries about finding another job at 59. 

Her household cost of living has also gone up substantially now that her two sons are home from school, she said. Even as Newark and the rest of New Jersey enters its reopening and recovery phase, Stokes represents the many still burdened by employment and tenancy worries. 

“It’s like, am I going to be working next week? I do community engagement work, and I can’t go out and physically engage the community. I’m constantly living in a state of apprehension,” Stokes said. 

Legislation for rental forgiveness, rather than repayment plans, would give Stokes and other families the relief they really need, she said. Particularly in communities like the Ironbound, where a large immigrant population relies on hourly work, trying to catch up on COVID-19 losses is an insurmountable task. 

“Since it’s on the state level, and since they can always forgive corporate America, why can’t they forgive the everyday person? This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, it’s not like it will happen every year,” Stokes said. “How can I enter into an agreement when I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to pay it back?”