By Luis Menendez
As we approach the end of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, not enough attention is being paid to the exorbitant debt that many tenants in the United States have accumulated during this period.
We need to reflect on the fact that those hardest hit by the pandemic have tended to be immigrants, people of color, women, and the working poor. As many will recognize, the pandemic has exacerbated the existing fractures in our communities, so it is no surprise that a growing housing crisis is felt most by members of our communities.
As the leader of Make the Road New Jersey in Passaic County, I do the work that I do because I realize that the issues I deal with daily are not exclusive to me or even my neighbors. No, there are whole communities that also have the same problems, and so if we come together, we can strategize and create solutions together.
Many of us have jobs that don’t pay us overtime or vacation. Many of our landlords constantly neglect our apartments and increase our rents at a rate most of us can’t afford without doubling the number of roommates.
We recently conducted a survey of tenants in Elizabeth, Passaic and Perth Amboy to better understand their experiences as tenants during the pandemic. In my hometown of Passaic, the survey found that 57.14% of tenants said their rent had been increased by an exorbitant rate after the pandemic and the city has no rent control.
We also found that 35% of respondents said they lived in unsafe, unsanitary and poor conditions, and 56% said they couldn’t convince their landlords to make necessary repairs to their rentals. Many reported rentals are infested with vermin and little enforcement from city inspectors when complaints are filed.
In addition to rent increases and poor conditions, many households still have significant rent debt from when they might have been out of work in the early months of the pandemic. In Passaic, the average rental debt is between $1,500 and $2,000.
An analysis from a year ago estimated the national average to be $3,700. For many families in my community, the pandemic has resulted in a huge loss of income without meaningful access to state or federal assistance. Even with programs like the New Jersey Excluded Fund, families continue to struggle. Because of this, their debt has increased enormously and in many cases an eviction order has already been issued.
I see this firsthand in my own community, but we know there is a nationwide housing crisis with a severe lack of affordable and livable housing. Above all, this issue does not attract the attention of our representatives either. Local laws are unclear and poorly enforced, which has led to rampant abuse by landlords.
The expansion of business owners has only worsened the already dangerous housing conditions. People are forced to make the difficult decision of whether to pay their rent or buy food or medicine. It is more difficult than ever to access decent housing because the will of companies has been privileged over the human right to decent housing.
We urge our representatives to center the needs of tenants in our districts by supporting policies that will benefit us, including better rent control, increased enforcement of existing laws, expanded and meaningful access to housing assistance programs, and universal right to counsel in Housing Court. .
Without this last right, tenants often have little or no recourse when faced with negligent landlords and unsafe conditions. Plus, without the full set of protections, the deck is completely stacked against tenants, especially those who feel less empowered to speak up. Ultimately, renter protection is key to improving the lives of the more than one-third of New Jersey residents who rent their homes and don’t earn enough to afford it.
Luis Menendez is a community activist with Do the NJ route in Passaic County. He lives in Paterson and has lived in New Jersey for 18 years.
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