Group aims to help Newarkers who are back at work — but backed up on rent

La Casa de Don Pedro received $1.4M donation for Back Rental Assistance program

There are a number of programs aimed at helping those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and are now struggling to pay their bills.

La Casa de Don Pedro of Newark is looking to help another classification of people: Those who have been fortunate enough to return to the workplace, but are not in a position to make good on bills they accumulated when the pandemic cost them their income.

Thanks to a $1.4 million donation, La Casa is helping Newark residents get debt-free through its Back Rental Assistance program. The hope is that the financial assistance will enable those in Newark’s working households to pay back months of unpaid rent so they can move forward from the COVID-19 crisis, debt-free.

Carrie Puglisi, director of program and fund development for La Casa de Don Pedro, explained the way it works.

“We work with households who, since losing their jobs due to COVID, have now returned to work, so they’re able to sustain their apartment and their homes, but they may have thousands of dollars over their heads in back rent due,” she said. “Knowing that folks have some level of hope that they can stay where they are, and we can be there to help them, has offered a great deal of relief.”

Reducing that stress is almost as important as reducing their debt, Puglisi said.

“It’s extreme levels of stress, extreme levels of anxiety,” she said. “This is already a stressful and difficult time for so many of us. We’re balancing everything from death and illness in our own families, combined with the uncertainty of the future.

“And not knowing if you have a place to live and if you can stay where you are — that really has impacted our community.”

On March 19 of last year. Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order suspending all evictions throughout the state.

The “eviction moratorium” guaranteed, excluding rare circumstances, that no tenant could be removed from their home through eviction. However, the order did not prevent the accumulation of back rent. After a year in the pandemic, the eviction moratorium is expected to end mid-June, and the state has not announced a formal plan to address residents’ inevitable debt caused by employment disruption and delinquent payments.

Mortgage and rental payments are often the most expensive bills in a resident’s budget, and, with 1.8 million New Jerseyans unemployed since the start of the pandemic, many have accumulated a large debt of back rent with no plan on how to pay it back.

Last August, the state announced a $100 million rental relief fund, but only about 8,000 out of 60,000 applicants were selected from the lottery. Another $353 million in relief funds was made available March 22, but not for undocumented residents, who cannot access funds from the federal stimulus package or any other public resources.

Alongside the rental assistance program, La Casa’s portfolio of programming includes early childhood education, youth enrichment, family counseling, adult education and employment assistance, immigration assistance, affordable homeownership, home energy conservation and assistance, and lead abatement and remediation.

La Casa has also remained a satellite site for LEAD Charter School, the education arm of Newark Opportunity Youth Network, through the pandemic. As a LEAD site, La Casa offers education and job training services to opportunity youth — 16- to 24-year-olds who are not in school and not working — and helps them obtain post-secondary success.