NEWARK, N.J. - James Aiken and his family will spend the holiday with relatives in North Jersey, but not by choice.

The Englewood family of four has been staying in Teaneck since allegedly being forced out of its apartment last month by a landlord facing bankruptcy.

The Aikens are one of an estimated 20,000 families in New Jersey that may be affected by a landlord foreclosure this year.

Renters cannot be evicted legally because of a landlord foreclosure in the Garden State, which has some of the nation's strongest tenant protections.

New Jersey Public Advocate Ron Chen said yesterday that landlords who force tenants out without a legal eviction order face both civil and criminal charges. Under state law, the landlord can be arrested as a disorderly person.

"This is a tragedy," Chen said. "Folks don't know it, but they don't have to leave."

State Banking and Insurance Commissioner Steven Goldman said tenants were being forced out because many lawyers, real estate agents, mortgage lenders, police and judges are unaware of the 2006 law.

Goldman's office is sending letters to real estate agents to inform them that they can lose their licenses and face individual fines up to $10,000 if they threaten a client with eviction to clear out a property.

The driving force in the recent spate of tenant evictions is a 45 percent increase in the number of foreclosures, which is expected to reach 50,000 this year. New Jersey had 34,457 foreclosures in 2007 and 23,044 in 2006, according to figures released by Chen.

Foreclosure is a legal action in which a property owner's rights are lost because he or she fails to make mortgage payments. The forfeited property may then be sold to the highest bidder.

Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, estimates that the 50,000 New Jersey foreclosures represent 70,000 dwelling units. One of every three homes in the state is a rental, he said. In Newark, more than two of every three homes are occupied by renters.

The surge in foreclosures is the result of the high prices some buyers paid for properties purchased at the height of the housing boom. Now those homes and apartment buildings are worth less and are more difficult to sell, and some landlords are walking away from them.

Many property owners depend on tenants' rent to cover their high mortgage payments, Goldman said. But many banks think empty buildings are easier to sell, he said.

"Houses are not exactly the hottest commodities these days," Goldman said. "It makes no sense to push paying tenants out to create a vacant property."

Aiken said that he and his family had lived in a four-unit apartment building for 11 years when they were told to get out. He said he had not missed any rent payments.

"The girls miss their own place," Aiken said of his daughters, ages 14 and 16.

Aiken said he received a letter from the West Orange law firm of Trenk DiPasquale, representing landlord Samuel and Ifeoma Ezekwo, telling them they were being evicted and had to be out by Aug. 31.

Anthony Sodono, an attorney at Trenk DiPasquale, did not return calls seeking comment. The Ezekwos' phone was unlisted.

Aiken said that when he did not leave, his landlord locked the basement and turned off the heat and water. The city then declared the structure unfit for occupancy.