Housing advocates ask lawmakers to seal landlord-tenant lawsuits

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

After the pandemic revealed cracks in protections for housing rights, lawmakers are looking for new ways to revamp housing laws during the fall session.

Senators held a discussion Thursday on legislation (S1665) that would seal all landlord-tenant records, in an effort to protect tenants who face eviction notices and are effectively barred from housing. But not all eviction notices result in the tenant being kicked out of the building, since they may work out an agreement with the landlord or win their case.

“It’s so important in terms of allowing tenants to be able to move on from having a filing held against them. We’re talking about people’s home and people’s housing,” said Allison Nolan, a senior staff attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

She said she often hears from tenants who use their right to withhold rent because their landlord fails to keep the unit in livable condition or make repairs, and the landlord files an eviction notice. That can follow them “as if they’ve done something wrong,” she said, despite New Jersey’s “implied warrant of habitability.”

Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the bill’s prime sponsor, urged the advocates to reach out to his office, which is constantly dealing with similar stories out of Union City and Jersey City, he said. He’s open to making changes to the bill, he added.

Currently, the bill would make all actions between landlords and tenants confidential during proceedings, and remain confidential if the tenant prevails. It would also prohibit a landlord from considering unresolved eviction actions while screening tenants. The bill seeks to increase penalties against landlords who use court filings against potential tenants to $1,000 for a first offense, and $5,000 for each time after.

Eviction records between April 2020 and Aug. 3, 2021 are already sealed under a law signed by Murphy. Still, advocates stressed it’s important to continue sealing those records to protect renters — disproportionately Latino and Black residents — who are being denied housing.

“There are already far too many barriers to obtaining housing, from the lack of affordable housing to the rapidly increasing rent rates across the state. Pair that with the fact that there are numerous third-party screening agencies that … are running background checks on potential clients, it really does add up to a ton of barriers,” said Joe Johnson, policy counsel with the ACLU of New Jersey.

Maura Sanders of Legal Services of New Jersey also pointed to the skyrocketing rent increases. Renters are seeing 20% to 40% rental increases, and the only way that typically gets in front of a judge is through an eviction proceeding.

And a spokeswoman for the state judiciary said while they are neutral on the bill, their systems and programming would need heavy updates that wouldn’t be able to be completed within the 120 days mandated in the bill.

Nicholas Kikis of the New Jersey Apartment Association noted that landlords are giving tenants access to a “very significant asset worth hundreds of thousands of dollars” — housing — in exchange for rental payments. He also pointed to several reforms lawmakers have already made, including sealing some eviction records during the pandemic.

“Please recognize as some of the reform efforts that have been made, I think, have been a little bit more target and try to balance some of the concerns,” he said. “Yes, providing second chances to tenants, but at the same time, give landlords the tools that they need to make sure that they’re ending the tenancy when they have, that comfort that it’s appropriate.”

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