Paths to Eviction Reform in New Jersey
December 7th, 2022
By Chris Romero
As housing prices continue to rise, the threat of eviction looms for thousands of New Jersey residents. As of February 2022, 393,000 households in New Jersey were considered delinquent on their rent, with a disproportionate number of households identifying as Hispanic or African American. Households with children and households with a combined income of $50,000 or less are also disproportionately impacted by eviction, putting increased pressure and strain on New Jersey’s most vulnerable tenants. Despite eviction moratoriums during the COVID-19 pandemic, rising housing costs and insufficient housing stock have created a dire situation for many households in New Jersey. As more and more individuals and families seek housing, their past eviction history is often a barrier to finding housing. To truly address our housing crisis, New Jersey must learn from other states and pursue reforms that minimize harm and increase access to housing. Eviction sealing laws are one path forward that should be considered.
Much like the ban the box movement, the use of eviction records to ban prospective tenants from moving into housing is recognized as a discriminatory barrier to housing, safety, and stability. New Jersey, like most other states during the COVID-19 pandemic, was forced to address this issue head on in response to rapidly changing economic factors. Passed during the pandemic, Assembly Bill 4463 acted as a temporary measure of relief from eviction by shielding tenants who not make a rent payment during the public health crisis, and by keeping their eviction records confidential. Although the bill staved off the worst of the pandemic’s effects on tenants, protection effectively ended on May 7, 2022. Having seen a what a successful temporary eviction sealing measure can look like at a statewide level, New Jersey now has an opportunity to pass more permanent legislation to address a lasting problem.
Multiple state have already passed, or are in the process of passing, legislation sealing eviction records that can serve as a template for molding statewide legislation here in New Jersey. In 2017, California passed Assembly Bill 2819 which automatically and permanently sealed all eviction court records where the landlord did not prevail at trial within sixty days of filing a complaint. This not only provided better protection to tenants, but also significantly updated California’s masking laws to prevent third parties from acquiring and providing “unmasked” court records and information to landlords about prospective tenants. At the end of 2020, Colorado also successfully passed an eviction record sealing law. The law requires the immediate sealing and suppression of court records at the start of an eviction action, and it maintains the suppression of those court records if the defendant wins or both parties come to an agreement that the record is to remain sealed. In 2020 Oregon also embraced some of the strongest eviction record laws in the country, passing multiple bills that allow persons to petition the court to seal court records under certain conditions. These include a five year lookback period in which nothing is owed from the eviction case, the tenant completed the terms of a stipulated agreement, or in cases where the court ruled in the tenant’s favor or dismissed the case in the applicant’s favor. New York, Nevada, Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Colombia have also passed sealing or expungement laws with similar provisions and stipulations, while Massachusetts currently has eviction record sealing legislation pending in its state house.
Having more than a handful of states that have successfully passed eviction record sealing legislation, there appears to be some common principles that could make up an impactful and all-encompassing law here in New Jersey. Many of these states put in place three-to-five year lookback periods, meaning that if a tenant has not had another eviction since the time of the eviction judgment, their record could be sealed automatically by the court. States with the most comprehensive eviction record legislation also automatically sealed records at the time the eviction action was filed, trying to protect tenants from the common problem of third parties obtaining eviction records for prospective landlords to see, even in cases where a tenant had a ruling in their favor. Third parties using these records, oftentimes illegally, have created another barrier which tenants may face after an eviction action. Using the models Colorado and California provide underscores the importance of sealing records at the time of actions, while also penalizing third parties and landlords who provide and use false or misleading information with significant penalties.
New Jersey State Senators Richard Codey and Brian Stack have introduced legislation containing many of the measures highlighted here. Senate Bill 1665 includes a three-year lookback period with expungement after this period, record masking at the time of an eviction filing and any following appeals, and guidance for the landlords in appropriately evaluating tenants. If passed, this bill would be a significant improvement in New Jersey eviction record laws.
Our state is facing a housing affordability crisis that requires thoughtful legislation aimed at eliminating barriers to housing. Evictions records from years ago, or from a period of national distress like the COVID-19 pandemic, should not preclude New Jerseyans from finding a safe, healthy home. The passage of this bill, or one like it, would create a strong foundation for tenant rights and would be a major victory for New Jersey residents.