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Timberlake: Both renters and homeowners need economic relief during this crisis

Right now, our state is going through a crisis that none of us have ever experienced. A new virus is sweeping through New Jersey and around the world, wreaking havoc on our communities, taking lives and impacting every one of us in different ways.

Flattening the curve is priority. The measures our state has taken are critical to slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives. At the same time, we must continue to work to address the economic challenges forcing businesses to shut down and lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. Since mid-March, 930,000 workers have filed for unemployment in New Jersey.

Nearly half of all Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck with even fewer having an emergency fund. Now, many don’t even have a paycheck due to circumstances out of their control. It’s not so easy finding a job when many businesses are closed or riding out the pandemic with a skeleton crew. More residents than ever before are worried about how they will pay their rent or mortgage in the coming months.

Although a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures exists during the COVID-19 crisis, many landlords are still expecting financially strapped tenants to pay their rent. Many tenants have been threatened with eviction after the State of Emergency lifts if they cannot pay now.

The majority of New Jersey homeowners can receive mortgage relief as a result of the recent agreement between Gov Phil Murphy and more than 40 banks, credit unions and servicers. However, in exchange for the mortgage relief, some lenders are requiring full payment of the amount past due on the 91st day, reporting negatively to credit agencies and sending late notices to owners, which only ignites more stress during this period of high anxiety.

The solution to solving both the renter and homeowner’s plight is Assembly bill A-3948, which I introduced on April 13. This bill would provide uniform mortgage relief and rent suspension for homeowners, small businesses and to anyone who requests relief during this time, with no impact to credit, or added fees or interest. My bill would also grant rental suspensions to anyone who requests one in writing.

No resident should have to worry about losing their home or facing financial penalties as a result of this pandemic.

People must stop looking at this housing crisis as landlords vs. tenants – both are important to the housing ecosystem. If homeowners do not succeed, renters will be displaced; if renters do not succeed, homeowners will foreclose. It’s critically important for both to receive an equal opportunity to keep a roof over their heads. My bill provides that opportunity.

We have worked hard to get out of the housing foreclosure crisis and still have a long way to go. New Jersey is still leading the country in foreclosures. The housing crisis will only worsen after COVID-19 passes. The rate of homelessness will drastically increase. People who were previously self-sufficient and gainfully employed will be on the street.

I urge landlords throughout the state to take stock of the current situation and offer rental relief to the people living in your homes and apartment buildings. Whether you freeze their monthly payments or offer a reduced payment plan based on the tenant’s current financial capabilities, you can make a big difference by showing compassion to your fellow New Jerseyans.

If any landlord is already receiving mortgage assistance through an existing forbearance but is still demanding rent from tenants, those actions are shameful. We need to come together now more than ever to help our fellow community members get through this crisis.

Everyone in our community must understand that we are all in this together, and we need to help one another out as we work our way through this crisis.

This op-ed was first published in the Star Ledger/ on April 30, 2020: