NEWARK, NJ — During the early weeks of the public health crisis, South Newark resident Rodney Codjoe watched as his job at Flying Food Group, a private provider of airline meals, slipped away from him hour by hour.
When the layoff eventually came, Codjoe, like more than half a million New Jerseyans, found himself not only filing for unemployment but preparing for a difficult conversation with his landlord about rent. He had been staying in the converted attic of a house on Nye Avenue with one other roommate since January, paying $175 each week.
From what Codjoe could ascertain, his landlord, Lloyd Brummel, sympathized with the unusual circumstances that had come down upon his tenant. Codjoe, intending to pay as much as he could as soon as his tax return, stimulus money and unemployment benefits started coming in, breathed a sigh of relief.
“He basically told me not to worry about it, to look into whatever I could do and talk to him and work with him,” Codjoe told TAPinto Newark. “I said ‘OK, I agree with that,’ and we understood the situation. He even mentioned that there are a lack of jobs right now, so when things pick back up, I can just pay him back the rent money I owe”.
One could imagine his shock and dismay when three days later, not long after both the city and state had already called for a lockdown and signed moratoriums on evictions, Brummel appeared to Codjoe and told him since Codjoe could no longer afford to live in his room, he had to leave immediately. A new tenant was slated to move in as soon as he could vacate.
Unaware of his rights and too stunned to know what to do in the moment, Codjoe began packing his belongings. After pointing out to Brummel he had nowhere else to go during a global pandemic, Brummel told Codjoe he could stay in the unfinished basement of the house for $25 less a week.
He’s not sure exactly what date he moved in the basement, but knows it was the last week of March. Codjoe says he has no kitchen or usable shower, and while most Newark residents are wearing masks out in public, he wears one indoors to breathe better in his mold-infested quarters.
“This is not a good condition for people to live in. I’m basically breathing in all this debris, so I have to wear a mask,” he said. “I don’t know what happened in my mind, I didn’t know how to react or respond to him. I believe that If I had been in a clearer state of mind I would have told him I am not accepting it, and if he’s willing to take it to that level, then he could call the police.”
Brummel did not return TAPinto Newark’s request for comment.
Without phone service (he had to suspend it while he waits for his benefits to come in), Codjoe has little recourse in the way of legal aid, which is operating remotely during the pandemic. But according to attorneys, he’s not alone, and as the moratoriums approach a possible end this summer, pro bonos and advocacy groups are bracing for an incoming onslaught of people facing eviction as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout.
In the age of information, most people take communication for granted, but in Newark, where 52% of adults are functionally illiterate and a third of homes have no Internet access, it’s inevitable that a large swath of the population will not know their tenancy rights under COVID-19.
This leaves many Newakers who rent vulnerable to exploitation and uncertain of where to go for resources when misfortune strikes. The city — which is one of three in the country to offer pro bono legal representation to low-income renters facing eviction — is enforcing state and local moratoriums, but relies on outside reporting of bad actors in order to hold them accountable.
As officials continue the citywide effort to shelter Newark’s homeless population during shelter-in-place, adding to the count due to illegitimate evictions isn’t exactly in the interest of the public health, either.
“The city will not tolerate landlords evicting residents during this pandemic. No evictions in Essex County can lawfully take place, so we are reminding residents and landlords that evictions are illegal during the moratorium,” a spokeswoman for the city said.
Organizations like the Ironbound Community Corporation are working as remotely as possible to educate their neighborhoods. Daniel Wiley, housing justice manager for ICC, said that the nonprofit’s DMs, inboxes and phone lines have been met with a barrage of questions about rent and landlord-tenant issues since the onset of the pandemic.
Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order 104, all evictions and foreclosure proceedings are suspended until up to two months after the state declares an end to the pandemic. Murphy also issued an order on April 24 that allows tenants to pay rent or compensate for shortfall.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped landlords, such as Brummel, from taking advantage of the Newarkers joining 6.6 million Americans in virtual unemployment lines. Wiley’s department received an emergency call on April 1 from a resident whose landlord had kicked them out through verbal threats and intimidation after failing to pay rent.
“I think it all just boils down to the fact that people don’t know what their rights right now. When it comes to any executive order, it’s kind of like, who has access to that information?” Wiley said. “Not just when it comes to technology, but where’s the language justice for this? We have to relay that information as quickly as possible.”
Organizers, government officials and pro bonos are getting creative about how they reach the public. This month, ICC partnered with Essex County, McCarter & English, the NJ Department of Community Affairs, the city’s Office of Tenant and Legal Services and local legal aid organizations for a web-based "Know Your Rights" town hall.
Participants logged on with questions for the team of experts, who were able to answer in multiple languages. Newark’s Ironbound in particular has a large Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking immigrant population that could miss out on important details of the pandemic without access to interpretation.
“Now — because so many more folks are starting to come out and ask questions and the state laws are changing too — we’re trying to figure out how we can put together robocalls to reach the masses as well as mass texting,” WIley said.
An Avalanche After the Storm
It's a well-recognized fact that the coronavirus has hit black and brown communities harder with respect to death and infection rates, but it also packs a punch loaded with more social consequences both during and after the crisis. While the legal aid organizations that serve Newark are still receiving tenancy cases remotely while moratoriums are in place, the real deluge will come when the orders lift and landlords can once again evict their tenants legally after 60 days.
Though legal aid typically serves low-income clients, many are also anticipating previously middle- and lower-middle-class people who lost their income due to COVID-19. Pro bono fellow at McCarter & English Abdul Rheman Khan said he anticipates tenancy courts to be inundated on an unreckonable level, but attorneys aren’t yet certain how things will work in terms of social distancing.
At the very least, cases will need to be metered in order to meet public health recommendations, and Khan thinks prioritizing in-person appearances to essential case types, such as when tenants pose health or safety risks, while the rest are conducted through video conference.
But that in itself also poses its own problems considering the limited access to technology low-income clients tend to face, he said, especially when dealing with imminent homelessness. There are many related social costs tied to eviction, like difficulty securing employment, decreased access to quality health care, education issues associated with relocation and mental health problems that often lead to suicide.
"The most vulnerable (to eviction) are the already marginalized populations, like single parents, people of color, and victims of domestic violence," Khan said, "I think we’re going to see a fallout like we’ve never seen before, and it’s going to require a social services safety net that will also be unprecedented."
Jose Ortiz, deputy director of Essex Newark Legal Services, said his organization has already had to help at least one client who was being forced out of a hotel where she had been living. According to him, homeless populations in cities nationwide are going to skyrocket post-moratorium unless federal aid becomes available for renters and homeowners.
“Clearly, we were having a big housing crisis before this happened, I can just imagine the crisis that’s going to happen after this is over, especially when you have an eviction process that favors landlords,” he said.
Essex County houses more than a quarter of the state’s homeless population, most of which is attributable to Newark, according to Monarch Housing Associates. The city has ramped up efforts to relocate its homeless population from Penn Station in recent years and expanded services through its own health department, Rutgers and Bridges Outreach, a nonprofit focused on creating long-term solutions to homelessness.
Without some kind of funding for renters, as well as legal protections from the state, the progress made in reducing homelessness will not only be undone but multiplied in Newark and beyond. Small-time landlords, too, will go under without tenants being given enough room to get back on their feet.
“I can see that number increasing unless there is further tenant protection, like right to counsel for those who qualify and financial assistance for these tenants to get back on their feet,” Ortiz said. “Currently the law in New Jersey is that the landlord cannot be made to wait for the money, so once the courts reopen and people go back and owe four, five months back rent, and they’re trying to do a repayment plan, they’re at the mercy of the landlord.”
Normally, legal aid organizations like Ortiz’s operate based on walk-ins, but with the coronavirus closing down offices, his staff and attorneys must rely on phone and email. That can be a problem when dealing with clients who are not only losing their homes but often their phone plans (like Codjoe), technology and Internet service.
Legal aid itself, in fact, has its back against a wall if the federal government doesn’t provide enough aid for counties to fund services. Legal services get paid from a percentage of court filing fees, and with the courts closed and interest rates dropping, organizations are facing reductions.
“You may have a perfect storm where demand is up but resources may be down. You’re talking about possible layoffs in Newark and across the state of New Jersey unless Washington gives them some kind of financial assistance,” Ortiz said. That’s definitely going to affect financial aid organizations that depend on government funding.”