As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across New Jersey, we also have to watch for the second wave, the long-term economic toll the disease will have on our state’s working families.
Mandatory business shutdowns and social distancing are helping us curtail the spread of this deadly disease and flatten the curve, but they are also having a cascading effect, leading to massive layoffs and economic uncertainty — particularly for working New Jerseyans living paycheck to paycheck.
Families who have lost income because of the coronavirus will fall behind on their mortgage and rent payments.
Gov. Murphy and the Legislature have taken measures to prevent an immediate crisis by announcing a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the crisis. The governor has followed up by announcing agreements with individual mortgage servicers to defer payments for 90 days.
These are good first steps but I can tell you from lessons my community learned the hard way, they will not be enough.
After superstorm Sandy devastated our state, former Gov. Christie failed to include meaningful protections for homeowners and renters in the state’s relief plans. This helped spark a wave of displacement across the Garden State.
The impacts were felt far beyond the families who were forced to leave their homes following the disaster. They rippled through entire communities as foreclosures and evictions lowered housing prices and, in some places, bred blight and disinvestment.
It took years of organizing, and even litigation, to roll out programs to keep storm victims in their homes. And for many, including me, real mortgage relief came too late to make a difference.
Trenton should learn lessons from Sandy and work proactively to address this crisis before it starts and use the programs eventually implemented after Sandy as a model.
For homeowners, we need a protection program that enables all impacted families to receive mortgage forbearance or loan modifications. Missed payments should be added onto the end of mortgages without requiring homeowners to make additional interest or late payments.
During Sandy, I was offered three months of a forbearance with all three months due as soon as that period was up. That didn’t work for my family then, and it won’t again now. We can’t depend solely on banks to do the right thing — we need a good program and protections for all New Jerseyans, not a bank-by-bank roulette.
It’s equally important that the state roll out a rental assistance program similar to the one the state was forced to implement after Sandy. Renters in New Jersey are disproportionately likely to have lower incomes and to be black, Latino or Asian-American. They are also more likely to be working in jobs that have been impacted by the virus and less likely to have access to comprehensive medical care.
My own experience showcases the perils of relying on voluntary programs to provide assistance to residents.
After Sandy, I lost my job and was forced to move out of my home. Unable to make my mortgage payments, my bank allowed me to enroll in a program that deferred my mortgage payments for 90 days — but required me to pay the entire past-due amount on the 91st day.
They then held up insurance payments that I needed to rebuild because they considered my mortgage in default.
In the end, I was only able to remain in my home because of the generosity of a private foundation that paid up my mortgage — and only after racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Like many of you, I lost my job in March, and I find myself needing a mortgage forbearance program again. This time around, we need programs that put families first, not banks.
New Jersey has led the nation in its initial aggressive response to the pandemic. The governor’s aggressive actions to enforce social distancing will save lives.
Now, they must follow through with decisive action to protect both homeowners and renters during the long period of recovery. We can learn from the hardship of Sandy and lead the nation on preparing for the economic toll we face.
While major corporations are turning to high-paid lobbyists for Washington bailouts, our elected leaders in Trenton must protect the working families who are most vulnerable to the havoc this crisis is wreaking.
We need to do better than the state did after Sandy, when Christie allowed impacted communities to suffer while using the cleanup to burnish his own national profile.
None of us can afford another broken recovery system.