November 6, 2020 – Morristown, NJ.
A crisis of unprecedented magnitude is headed towards New Jersey. The abrupt closing of the economy due to COVID-19 destabilized a massive number of New Jersey families. The state’s unemployment rate rapidly rose from 3.7% to 17% and remains at 11%.
Job losses disproportionately affected renters, who already faced lower incomes, less savings, and fewer assets than homeowners did. The convergence of limited affordable housing, the astonishing number of families paying over 50% of their income to rent, and the fallout of COVID-19, is leading a record number of families to the brink of eviction and homelessness. A recent economic impact study predicts that New Jersey could see upwards of 300,000 eviction filings in the coming months.
Governor Phil Murphy’s moratorium on executing evictions and the court’s stay on most landlord-tenant trials have temporarily kept the crisis at bay. However, imagine what will happen in New Jersey when those provisions are lifted—if 300,000 households are evicted in the midst of a global pandemic. What impact will mass homelessness have on virus transmission rates in our state? What will the economic fallout be for New Jersey for decades to come? What will be the individual human toll on the countless mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, students, seniors, veterans, and others who lose their home?
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, last month announced it was providing $2.35 million to Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey to support a new Housing Stability Project that will connect tenants with much needed housing counseling, education, and individualized legal help.
Even before COVID-19, 99% of tenants who faced eviction in New Jersey did not have an attorney, while most landlords did. Layering all of the families suffering from COVID’s wake on top of an already overburdened and complex legal system will not lead to justice for unrepresented tenants and could cripple our social service infrastructure. The addition of more lawyers for tenants should advance the settlement process, which could also provide relief for landlords struggling financially due to the pandemic.
Legal aid offices across the state are working tirelessly to educate and represent low-income tenants facing eviction, but the vastness of the coming wave is immense. The looming crisis is a call to action for the more than 80,000 lawyers in New Jersey who have a record of fighting for justice in defining moments of communal disaster. The legal community’s pro bono response in the aftermath of 9-11 and Superstorm Sandy was momentous and upheld the highest ideals of professionalism.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside of yourself. Something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is—living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”
Luckily for lawyers in New Jersey, volunteering to be a pro bono attorney could not be easier. VLJ has been providing free life-changing legal services to vulnerable populations in New Jersey for almost 20 years in partnership with pro bono attorneys from the private bar. VLJ provides training and support so that lawyers with little to no experience with landlord-tenant law can be effective advocates. As a recent client stated, having a lawyer allowed him to “sleep at night knowing that we did not have to fight a legal battle alone.”
So, on the heels of the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Week, we ask all of the lawyers in New Jersey: what are you willing to do to repair the tears in our community? This is another defining moment for our state. We need you to be part of the solution for families on the brink of eviction and to ensure justice is protected in New Jersey. Please volunteer today at http://www.vljnj.org/tenancy-program.
Cathy Keenan is executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy is the founding chair of New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.