The Essex County Courthouse. Image courtesy of the City of Newark.

Newark’s Fight for Housing Stability

To break the cycle of poverty and increase economic mobility, the City is protecting tenants’ legal rights and affordable housing

By Alison Gardy

**Even before COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated so many symptoms of the United States’ crisis of economic inequality, local governments were working on better ways forward. Through the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative, launched in June 2019, nine cities chose to develop critical projects to increase the financial security and economic mobility of their most vulnerable residents — often in low-income communities of color.

The story below is a snapshot: a record of a persistent obstacle to economic mobility, of a city creatively engaged with the problem, of an emerging solution. Written before the pandemic began, it shows the commitment and leadership of city leaders, staff, and local community partners who recognized the need for change. Although COVID-19 is reshaping economic mobility challenges and solutions around the country, the stories of these pre-crisis actions and insights remain instructive and valuable.

As the hard tasks of response and recovery continue, WWC will be publishing stories about how cities have evolved their economic mobility projects to meet the moment.**

NEWARK, NJ — The Essex County Courthouse — five marbled stories with a Tiffany dome skylight — sits on a hill overlooking downtown Newark. The building is a neoclassical behemoth looming over three traffic arteries, a monument to justice and democracy built more than a century ago. Deep in its cavernous interior is Room 155, Landlord-Tenant Court.

On any given morning in Room 155, Newark residents facing eviction sit in pew-like benches, waiting for their names to be called. After the roll call, they exit the courtroom and line up in a hallway before a row of landlords’ lawyers standing behind a long, narrow table. Anyone nearby can hear the tenants’ personal pleas and negotiations, even tears.

The entrance to the Landlord-Tenant Court at the Essex County Courthouse. Image courtesy of the City of Newark.

On an early June morning in 2019, one tenant had reportedly not had running water for four months. Another reported she had been asking the landlord to repair a hole in the floor of her wheelchair-bound daughter’s bedroom for two years. An elderly woman who depends on a walker for mobility had erroneously been served someone else’s eviction notice, but still had appeared in court for fear of losing her home. She was told to sign a consent judgment which, in effect, meant she agreed to be evicted if she failed to pay rent. Consistent across nearly all of these tenants was a lack of legal representation.

In fact, nine out of 10 Newark tenants do not have legal representation at eviction proceedings. Studies have found, however, that tenants with lawyers are 10 times more likely to win an eviction case as they go up against landlords, nearly all of whom retain a lawyer.

Pursuing a Path Toward Housing Stability

Mindful of this power imbalance — and housing market pressures threatening affordability across the City, which experienced the steepest increase in home values of any large city in the country a few years ago— Newark leaders decided to act.

Mayor Ras Baraka and the City Council rallied around a handful of different ways to support housing stability, including protecting tenants’ rights and strengthening the City’s rent control program. The Department of Economic and Housing Development (DEHD), which sees stable housing as a linchpin of a larger strategy to address income inequality in Newark, is leading the efforts.

In December 2018, the City Council passed a measure creating the Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS), which offers tenants facing the threat of eviction free legal services. OTLS is the third right-to-counsel office of its kind in the nation; the others are in New York City and San Francisco. Its mission is simple and urgent: help low-income Newark residents threatened with eviction by providing free legal support. It launched in 2019, opening an office in the county courthouse.

Kenyatta Stewart, the City’s Corporation Counsel, speaking to the Municipal Council advocating for the creation of the Office of Tenant Legal Services. Photo courtesy of the City of Newark.

“Creating a more equitable, empowered and collaborative city is at the heart of Mayor Baraka’s Newark Forward agenda,” said Allison Ladd, Newark Deputy Mayor and Director of Economic and Housing Development. “By empowering tenants with the same legal representation that landlords have in eviction cases, we are helping to make Newark a more equitable city as well.”

Advocating for Tenant Rights

Evictions are devastating. Families losing their homes often also lose their possessions, generally move to less safe and desirable neighborhoods, suffer increased incidents of mental illness, and can lose their jobs. According to the Eviction Lab, “The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.”

Tenants in Newark are particularly vulnerable to eviction. Nearly 80 percent of city residents are renters, the highest percentage of all U.S. cities. Most tenants spend 35 percent or more of their monthly income on rent, well above the national average. This partly stems from Newark’s 40 percent poverty rate, far higher than the national average. Housing instability results from many low-income tenants’ unpredictable income and expenses, and their lack of savings to help make rent if work dries up.

It all adds up to a stunning statistic: In Newark, one in four tenants receives an eviction notice each year. In 2018, the City accounted for 50 percent of the 40,000 eviction notices filed in Essex County, despite accounting for only 35 percent of the county’s population. Eviction filings increased in Newark that year, even as they declined statewide.

Khabirah Myers, coordinator of OTLS, knows from firsthand experience how lawyers protect people threatened with eviction. For 10 years, she represented tenants as an Essex County Legal Services lawyer.

Tenants often do not know their legal rights, says Myers, which makes them vulnerable to eviction. For example, they may not know they have the legal right to withhold rent if their apartments are uninhabitable. Or that an eviction notice must inform tenants of their right to request a grievance procedure. Even when tenants do know their rights, it takes courage to assert them amid the terrifying prospect of losing one’s home and fear of retribution.

“This is why we fight tooth and nail for the tenants,” Myers says.

Since OTLS got off the ground, Myers worked to create a team of lawyers with knowledge of New Jersey housing law and a passion for defending tenants. The nascent office got a boost when Newark was selected last year to participate in the What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative. It helps nine participating cities identify, pilot, and measure the success of local strategies designed to accelerate residents’ economic mobility.

No Easy Fix

Preventing evictions is vital to improving the economic mobility of many Newark residents. But the City knows that to substantially bolster housing stability, it must pursue a multi-pronged strategy. Another avenue of change involves ramping up Newark’s rent control program — meaning enforcing the City’s strong ordinances so landlords are aware of guidelines and don’t overcharge tenants.

Permissible rent increases per the City’s Rent Control Ordinance, from the City of Newark’s Department of Rent Control.

But enforcement is only possible if rental units are registered with the City’s Office of Rent Control — and thousands are not. So the office is aggressively working to register units across the city. The benefits are twofold: Complete rent control unit data will help ensure affordable housing for tenants, while also giving city leaders a detailed understanding of the true scope of its affordable housing problem.

“In the past, Newark lacked full data on low-income rental units. By mapping the housing landscape now we are better able to identify and implement real solutions that enable renters to afford to continue living in Newark,” said Jay Lee, Rent Regulation Officer for the City of Newark.

Another way Newark officials are trying to tackle the City’s housing challenge is by improving database coordination between City Hall departments. For instance, DEHD’s Division of Planning and Zoning is working to map every property in the city with comprehensive data, including its physical condition, past violations, planning and zoning status, rent control compliance, police activity, tax history, and myriad other data points which presently reside separately in a variety of different city departments.

Other day-to-day barriers to progress involve lacking outreach mechanisms to landlords and tenants to prevent eviction filings in the first place. (Even if eviction cases are ultimately thrown out, eviction notices remain on tenants’ records, negatively affecting their future housing searches and credit reports.) Another capacity issue is a staff shortage in the budding OTLS.

DEHD wants to expand OTLS beyond the courthouse by setting up satellite offices in various city wards. The idea would be to bring lawyers closer to the people who need them. Right now, access to OTLS lawyers isn’t convenient: Tenants must visit the courthouse or City Hall.

Yet even in the face of daunting challenges and constrained resources, Mayor Baraka and his team express excitement about the opportunity to learn from best practices in other cities and to model solutions that improve the lives of vulnerable residents.

Of course, there is much to do. The OTLS team, the Office of Rent Control, DEHD, and the City as a whole are determined to meet the challenge head on. People’s future — their ability to build a better life atop a stable home — are at stake.

“We want to ensure tenants have legal representation when they need it, and we are strengthening the enforcement of our rent control ordinance, which What Works Cities’ collaboration with Newark in the Economic Mobility Initiative will help us do,” Ladd said. “But ultimately, this is about a commitment to our city and to the people who live here. We all benefit when everyone has a secure place to call home.”

Alison Gardy is a communications consultant for Results for America.

The What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative is a program that aims to help nine participating cities identify, pilot, and measure the success of local strategies designed to accelerate economic mobility for their residents. Through the expertise of the What Works Cities’ network of partners and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group, this initiative puts data and evidence at the center of local government decision-making.

Launched in 2015, What Work Cities helps local governments use data and evidence to tackle their most pressing challenges and improve residents’ lives. Learn more about What Works Cities at whatworkscities.org

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What Works Cities

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.