Tamera Morris looked from behind the curtain inside her two-bedroom apartment at least once daily.
When she rented her Camden spot in 2016, she was promised a price fix for five years from her landlord, whose name is being withheld per Morris’ request because “he can still make my life a pain if he wants,” she tells Philadelphia Weekly. Morris, 31, who lost her job at a Cherry Hill car dealership as an administrative assistant, and has been struggling to pay her landlord, living in constant fear of finding herself living out of her car.
“The other day when his car pulled up I felt like I was having an anxiety attack,” Morris said. “I feel like he’s going to come here at any time with police and kick me out.”
On Tuesday, when a shocking decision by the Trump Administration to create a federal moratorium on evictions, the news arrived as a blessing to Morris, a blessing she never knew existed until it was revealed by this reporter.
By the time COVID-19 became big in New Jersey in April, Morris said she had enough money if she lost her job to rent for about one month and still take care of herself. When she was let go at her dealership in June, she noted that she saw the writing on the wall and was able to prepare for the next two months of living and maintaining before things became dire. At the time of this end of August report, Morris who says she has applied to what “feels like hundreds of jobs” is still waiting for an interview to turn into her next chapter.
“Even before the pandemic shuttered businesses and plunged the U.S. into record-high unemployment, the state of New Jersey had over 15,000 evictions on file with Camden County courts had a backlog of close to 900 pending evictions. Just across the bridge in Philadelphia, those courts had nearly 2,000 planned evictions on the docket.
“If elected leaders don’t extend it, that number could spike exponentially as moratoriums soon end,” said Duane Lassiter, a Philadelphia-based attorney specializing in legal housing issues and evictions. Lassiter also noted that in cases like Morris’, not everything is taken into account, yet courts lean to the side of landlords. “There are two sides to every dispute … [it’s important for people to] remember you have a right to a day in court.”
‘The timing is too perfect’
While Hal Narducci understands that putting people out on the street isn’t the goal of any landlord, he notes that he has a business to run. Narducci, owner of a pair of South Jersey properties in Haddonfield and Cinnaminson, notes that while this moratorium is beneficial for renters, landlords now face going through the hoops of applying for their own assistance funded by state and federal coffers and can take months to process.
Not to mention initial payments of court fees to begin the eviction process to begin with.
“There are two sides to every dispute … [it’s important for people to] remember you have a right to a day in court.”– Eviction attorney Duane Lassiter
“I get it, but that doesn’t make this suck any less,” Narducci said. “The state had its own thing and that’s who should be handling this. For the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to be supplying policy is interesting. If you ask me, this all goes back to voting, not COVID-19. How many people stand to lose their homes? Thousands? That’s also thousands of voters too that could look at their predicament unfavorably and vote on that emotion. These politicians aren’t stupid.”
Theories abound but the fact remains that people like Tamera Morris are safe for now as the push for a vaccine that would protect against the spread of COVID-19 will be the only time landlords might find themselves with leverage when it comes to evictions.
Although Lassiter notes that landlords won’t stop trying or filing paperwork as a scare tactic to underpaid and overstressed tenants.
“[Everyone has] basic legal rights,” Lassiter explained. “You cannot be evicted from your residence of more than 30 days or more without a court order. If your landlord tries to evict you without a court order, don’t leave, instead call 911. If you find yourself in this predicament, pay attention to your mail. Pay attention to notices on your door.”
For Morris, the knowledge and the security that there’s hope to get herself back on track is paramount: “I was part of a wave [of evictions] that they were soon coming after. I mean I’m going on three months late on my rent, I get it. But the stress from the weight of it has been more than I can bear sometimes.”
This story was produced as part of a four-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University