Gov. Phil Murphy recently urged tenants to report New Jersey landlords who are "screwing you," repeating back a reporter's phrasing at an April 11 state briefing. But existing legislation does not provide enough protection for those in dire financial straits due to the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid losing their residences, according to a renters' group.

"We have said you can't be thrown out of your house or evicted if it's foreclosed. You can't be foreclosed on," Murphy said at the briefing. "If the landlord's got a mortgage, and they've got a holiday from their mortgage bank, we expect them to pass that holiday on to people who are renting from them."

Officials with the state Department of Community Affairs also referred back to the Executive Order, which Murphy signed on March 19.

“It’s a moratorium on lockouts — [it] doesn't prevent evictions from occurring,” according to Matt Shapiro, president of the N.J. Tenants Organization.

He said it's all just a delay, as nothing in the executive order or in existing legislation stops eviction cases from proceeding.

"Tenants are under the impression that they are no longer obligated to pay rent. They are wrong," read a law firm article posted to the website of the Property Owner's Association of New Jersey.

The same article, attributed to Feinstein Raiss Kelin Booker & Goldstein out of Livingston, also pointed out that while court filings and lock-outs may be curtailed in certain circumstances, "a tenant’s obligation to pay rent remains unchanged."

Shapiro said while it isn’t universal, many of the state's 1.1 million tenant households live paycheck-to-paycheck. That figure translates to roughly a third of the state population as tenants.

Once the courts reopen, (tentatively set after April 26), Shapiro said they’ll start hearing eviction cases and "evictions will be granted because the tenants certainly aren’t going to be paying the rent — they don’t have it.”

"Rent basically needs to be cancelled during the emergency and then a fair repayment program for that rent over a long period of time — that would still be affordable — has to be worked out," Shapiro said.

Shapiro also said landlords need help, too, with their mortgage and utility payments, while tenants need actual protection against eviction.

He said while "none" of the pending bills actually solve the problems tenants are faced with, proposed legislation by Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake,D-Essex, comes "closest."

Timberlake introduced a bill Monday that covers mortgage and loan forbearance, rent suspension and consumer reporting during the pandemic. As written, the measure (A-3948) calls for property owners to be granted upon request at least a three-month mortgage forbearance.

In turn, tenants also would be granted upon request at least a three-month suspension of rent from property owners, without additional fees or penalties to be added on.

The proposed legislation has gained the public support of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who said the bill would provide "essential economic relief."

"We have not [had] a rental freeze, just because there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, if not millions of contracts between landlords and renters," Murphy said during the April 11 state briefing.

Murphy said landlords demanding rent payment amid the pandemic is "out-of-line behavior."

"This is no time to be throwing your weight around as a landlord or as anybody else, for that matter," he said.

Shapiro said he thinks the governor’s heart is in the right place but "intent isn’t going to do it."

He said some landlords "have strong moral fiber and won’t take tenants to court," but an awful lot of landlords will.

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