New Jersey Newsroom

N.J. Tenants Facing Eviction Due To Foreclosure Can Seek Help

New Jersey Newsroom — Thursday, October 29, 2009

BY VALERIE SUDOL
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

Tenants in buildings subject to foreclosure can't be forced to move, according to state Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen, who is visiting urban neighborhoods to spread the word.

During the latest wave of foreclosures, his staff at the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate has come to the defense of more than 160 tenants throughout the state who have faced threats of eviction, utility shutoffs and other problems.

In a recent appearance at the Episcopal Community Development Corp. in downtown Newark, Chen said that New Jersey's strong tenant-protection laws prohibit landlords from evicting tenants solely because the building is in foreclosure.

"As the wave of foreclosures in the nation continues, tenants remain vulnerable," Chen said. "Fortunately, New Jersey provides greater protections to tenants of foreclosed properties than any other state, but tenants need to know their rights in order to protect themselves and their families."

Since 2008, the department has worked directly with tenants throughout New Jersey to help advise them of their rights. It also has distributed through local agencies more than 20,000 brochures that give tenants the information to fend off unwarranted evictions.

"We launched our tenant protection project last year because it was apparent from calls we received that most tenants are unaware that they cannot be forced to move as a result of a foreclosure," Chen explained. "New owners who assume control of foreclosed properties also cannot force tenants out by creating dangerous living conditions, such as shutting off water or other essential utilities."

evict_opt_optGov. Jon Corzine, who reinstated the Department of Public Advocate in 2006, stands behind Chen's efforts. The governor has instructed state agencies to enforce a 1994 ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court that upheld the state's Anti-Eviction Act. The act protects tenants even when the property where they live is in foreclosure or has been foreclosed.

Despite this safeguard, many tenants are pressured to leave their homes, Chen said. The department's investigation found many instances in which lenders who acquired properties through foreclosure then hired agents — such as real estate professionals, property managers or attorneys — who contacted tenants in an effort to get them to leave.

Some make a "cash for keys" offer (if the tenants leave they will get money; the sooner they leave the more money they will get) without informing the tenants of their right to refuse the offer and remain in their homes. Some lenders or their agents misrepresent the law by telling tenants they have to leave or face eviction, or attempt to collect rent that the tenant has already paid to the former owner.

"When I told the bank that I know my rights and I have a right to stay, they didn't listen to me," said North Bergen resident Rosita Crooke. "But when I got the Public Advocate involved, they finally listened. More people need to know that help is available to them."

The Public Advocate also is working with utility companies throughout the state to ensure that tenants don't lose vital services because of their landlords' failure to pay, said Chen.

The Public Advocate has also received 166 calls for assistance, 96 of which involved direct intervention by his staff. When a preliminary investigation reveals that real estate licensees, asset managers, or lawyers are sending misleading notices, the Public Advocate contacts them, warns them in writing of the unlawful nature of their actions, and sends the relevant information to the appropriate regulatory agency, such as the Real Estate Commission in the case of real estate licensees.

"We have seen sheriffs who post or serve notices advising tenants — or 'all occupants' — that they must vacate the premises because of a foreclosure," Chen added. "We are working with the Attorney General's Office to educate the sheriffs about the law."

The Public Advocate has proposed a court rule requiring that tenants living in foreclosed properties receive notice of their rights before entry of a final judgment of foreclosure. State Sen. Ronald L. Rice and Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman are working with a coalition of public interest organizations to pass pending legislation that also would provide tenants notice of their rights.

"People need to access the resources that are available to them. Too often, people reach out to us when they are already so far down the road that they are on the verge of homelessness," said Gerard Haizel, executive director of Episcopal Community Development. "Whether you are tenants or homeowners, the more information you have and the sooner you act, the easier it will be to protect yourself."

Chen said that Legal Services of New Jersey, New Jersey Citizen Action, the New Jersey Tenants Organization, the Association for Children of New Jersey, and Housing and Community Development Network among others, brought the tenant eviction issue to his attention.

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