Help for low-income families to fight an eviction demand

D writes:

Looking for an attorney who would be willing to help on a pro bono basis a young family with two adorable children (under three years old) to avoid eviction from their apartment. The apartment has not received the appropriate heat this winter, and thus their children are always sick. So they withheld their rent to try to get the landlord’s attention. Instead they received an eviction notice. The court date is this Thursday. Any help would be truly appreciated.”

It’s good to get legal advice before withholding rent from a landlord. In the state of New Jersey, there are procedures in place to force landlords to amend conditions which are dangerous or unhealthy for their tenants, but tenants must protect themselves by following those procedures carefully because it’s also true that in New Jersey, landlords are always entitled to their rent. Legal Services of New Jersey explains the proper procedures for redressing health and safety violations via your town’s board of health and the court system.

I’ll share some emergency help resources below, but first want to share information your friends may find useful:

If the couple’s demand for eviction is based on back rent being owed, they can avoid eviction by paying the overdue amount to their landlord (make sure to get a receipt!). Paying before the court date makes sense, because their landlord could be entitled to receive extra fees if the case is resolved in court. If their rent is paid up the court will – most probably – dismiss the eviction demand without hearing the case, so extra fee assessment will not be permitted. Should the couple resolve the eviction demand by paying their back rent, they will want to get a written statement from the landlord establishing that it is being withdrawn. If they don’t receive a written statement, one of the two will need to attend court on the date scheduled in order to make sure the case is dismissed.

Another call your friends may want to make is to the health department. There are legal mandates about how much heat should be provided in the winter months and if health officials catch a landlord violating those laws the health department and the courts have the power to force the landlord into compliance or subject him to serious penalties including fines and even jail time.

Legal Services of New Jersey (also known as Legal Aid) Their services are free to qualified, low-income families and individuals, but they have a huge caseload and are only able to take on a certain number of new cases each day. Under Christie, their funding has been cut several times so many people needing free legal help cannot get it. Your best chance of being accepted as a Legal Services client is to be at the door of their local office a couple of hours before it opens, so you can be amoung the first cases that day which are evaluated as possible service recipients.

New Jersey Tenant’s Organization Call 201-342-3775 to get in the queue for a callback from this organization, then visit their office at 389 Main Street, Hackensack and hand in – or slide under the door if the office is closed – a check for $22 annual dues along with your contact information. NJTO can only assist members whose dues are paid, but there’s no waiting requirement to get help; they can speak with you right away as long as you’ve given them your dues payment. Counsellors provide expert information about tenant’s rights and can explain legal and court procedures. Although their staff are not lawyers and cannot give legal advice or predict court outcomes, they are very knowledgeable about tenant matters. Put in your call to them ASAP, as you may wait a while for a callback. These people stay very busy!

Ronald Schwartz, Esq. at 201-342-3626 is a lawyer extremely versed in landlord-tenant matters, with offices in Hackensack, NJ. Mr. Schwartz does not offer free service, but his advice is invaluable.

OTHER RESOURCES

  • Tenant Resource Directory This is written for Newark tenants but contains information generally useful to all tenants.
  • 2-1-1 The counsellors at this number are really sweet but they almost never have very good services or organizations to refer callers to. Too bad, since they are funded to provide emergency resources for families and individuals in crisis, which is a really important function.
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