After state of emergency: Attention likely to turn to moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs

Gov. Phil Murphy proposes his fiscal 2021 budget earlier this year. (File photo)

When questioned about the need to maintain the health state of emergency at its one-year anniversary earlier in the spring, officials from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration cited three big reasons the declaration needed to stay in place:

  • To ensure the state was eligible to receive certain federal monies that only can be allotted to states that have declared an emergency;
  • To maintain a number of statewide initiatives, especially ones regarding vaccine distribution;
  • To continue the moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs.

On Friday, in a vaguely worded announcement, Murphy, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) announced the state of emergency would be coming to an end — although the governor would maintain some of the “necessary tools” the state has been using since the pandemic reached New Jersey in March 2020.

“Our administration is working closely with Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin on legislation that will allow the public health emergency to expire, but ensure that we have the necessary tools and flexibility to continue the fight against the pandemic, including the vaccination efforts that are our highest priority,” Murphy said in a statement. “By working together, we are confident that we can move to the next phase of our recovery effort.”

The tools — and how they will impact the moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs — figure to be the most impactful moving forward.

In April, Cheryl Stowell, the CEO of NJ SHARES, said state residents could owe nearly a billion dollars in overdue utility payments — a number so high that the state must step in.

“New Jersey must look at its own resources and address these problems comprehensively,” Stowell wrote in an Op-Ed on “The looming crisis will be so broad that the state must develop a solution and approach that will help families address all their imminent needs.”

In May, Matthew Kertz, chair of the Commercial & Residential Real Estate Leasing Group at Genova Burns, said the impact of ending the state’s eviction moratorium will be huge.

It could lead to a tsunami of cases, Kertz said. One where residents would have little recourse if new rules are not put into place.

“The emerging legal trend across the nation is that COVID is not fundamentally changing the law, and, once landlord/tenant courts fully reopen, judges will be bound by prior decisions that do not afford them much leeway in what they can decide,” he told ROI-NJ.

“After the moratoriums end, will tenants restart paying rent again, with the arrearages hanging over them, or will they continue to occupy without paying, leaving landlords forced to apply to the courts for relief? Many landlords and tenants will find themselves in a no-win situation, and landlords will apply to the courts for eviction relief and a judgment for the back rent.”

How — or if — the Legislature and Murphy will attack the moratorium issues is not clear yet.

And there certainly was no hint in the statements Sweeney and Coughlin released Friday.

“We will work in partnership with the governor and the Assembly to overcome the many challenges ahead,” Sweeney said. “The new normal won’t be normal for some time. We have to make the best use of our resources, our abilities and our determination to address the needs of our citizens.”