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New Jersey needs rent and mortgage flexibility to survive the pandemic | Opinion

A bill to expand the timeline for rent and mortgage payments during the coronavirus crisis should get pushed forward by the General Assembly.

The New Jersey Statehouse is seen in Trenton, N.J., June 27, 2017. The state Senate approved a rent and mortgage extension bill that is now under consideration by the General Assembly.
The New Jersey Statehouse is seen in Trenton, N.J., June 27, 2017. The state Senate approved a rent and mortgage extension bill that is now under consideration by the General Assembly.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP File

The New Jersey Legislature must act quickly to head off an eviction and foreclosure tsunami caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mandated business closures to curb the spread of the virus have caused record-high unemployment, putting families across New Jersey at risk of losing their homes. Evictions and foreclosures loom as a foreboding reality for thousands if nothing is done.

State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) has introduced a bill, SB 2340, to offer renters flexibility so they are not forced to pay four or more months of rent at once when the eviction moratorium is lifted.

The bill also allows homeowners who are temporarily unable to make their mortgage payments the necessary forbearance to pay off what they owe at the end of their mortgage’s life, rather than during the crisis.

The proposal has cleared the state Senate and the key Assembly Housing Committee and is being championed by Singleton as well as Assembly Housing Chair Benjie Wimberly (D., Passaic) and Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D., Essex). It is especially essential for the housing security of Black New Jerseyans and immigrant families — many of whom don’t qualify for federal assistance.

The legislation adds much-needed measures to the positive first steps Gov. Phil Murphy has taken to implement a temporary eviction and foreclosure moratorium and direct $100 million to a short-term rental assistance program.

» READ MORE: Tenants and landlords in Pa. and N.J. are seeking rental assistance to fend off evictions

But more needs to be done, as soon as possible.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Majority Leader Louis Greenwald must act quickly to put the bill up for a vote so that Gov. Murphy can sign it into law.

South Jersey, in particular, needs the help. The economic shutdown resulting from the pandemic has hit our region hardest of any in the state because we are less well off than North Jersey. Before the pandemic, approximately 20% of households in Atlantic, Cumberland, and Salem Counties had an income of under $25,000. This was true of fewer than 10% of households in the North Jersey counties of Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, and Sussex.

The choice Trenton makes on this legislation is not only an economic issue. It is also a civil rights issue.

Just as we need to make bold criminal justice reforms in the wake of the death of George Floyd, we also need to pass tangible protections that save people of color and immigrants from homelessness or overwhelming financial ruin.

Black people would suffer if this bill is not passed. They are more likely to contract and be hospitalized for COVID-19. Non-Hispanic Black people are hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate five times greater than that of non-Hispanic white people. Black Americans are also more likely to have lost jobs in the service and retail sectors, which provided the income needed to maintain their housing security.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvanians struggling with housing costs due to pandemic can apply for aid

And undocumented immigrants, excluded from federal assistance programs, face calamity without state protections that safeguard their housing. Immigrants come to the United States to work hard and raise their children. Often that means taking multiple jobs in service, restaurant, retail, or other industries to make ends meet for their families. Many such industries have experienced devastating layoffs during the pandemic shutdown. That means some of the most hardworking people in our economy have lost what they need to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

New Jersey has led the way in respecting undocumented immigrants, passing legislation last year to allow them to earn driver’s licenses. If we don’t protect their housing, we will wipe out the dignity that New Jersey is supposed to be giving them.

There is only one force fighting to prevent this bill from becoming law: large corporate interests with greed that knows no bounds. Landlords in the state are pushing to be able to kick innocent residents out of their homes, filing more than 15,000 eviction cases in the last three months. If our elected leaders cave to these special interests, our state will have turned its back on the most vulnerable among us just when they need support the most. That is not the New Jersey I know.

Instead, our leaders should ensure New Jersey remains true to its values and support those who, through no fault of their own, risk losing everything. If we don’t, we may never recover from the unnecessary damage suffered.

Carolyn Chang was the president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey from 2017 to 2018. Chang is a member of the Garden State Bar Association, New Jersey’s oldest and largest professional organization for Black judges, lawyers, and law students, which also supports SB 2340.