The NJ has yet to launch a COVID relief program for homeowners. Why not?


David Alston lost 18 pounds by skipping meals to save money while he waited six months for his delayed unemployment checks.

He used up his $ 5,000 in savings and racked up $ 1,600 in debt on his cable bill before canceling the service.

But his biggest concern was losing thousands of dollars in paying property taxes for the house he lives in, which his family bought fifty years ago in Iselin, a three square mile community in Woodbridge Township.

“I will die before I lose my parents’ house,” said Alston, 62.

To help homeowners across the country, like Alston, survive the financial turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has set aside nearly $ 10 billion in a built-in ‘Homeowner Assistance Fund’ to the vast American stimulus plan.

But nearly ten months later, few states have launched applicationportals for the program, not to mention checks to help low-income families cover mortgage and interest payments, home insurance, utility payments and property taxes.

The agency administering the $ 325 million fund in the Garden State – the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency – told that the US Treasury Department approved the plan New Jersey submitted in August, but that will still take weeks before the program. portal is open to the public.

“We plan to provide more information in an official announcement in the coming weeks, which will ensure that landlords are able to collect the relevant documents and start engaging with contracted housing advisers to secure a assistance before the portal opens, “said Jonathan Sternesky, head of policy. and legislative affairs of the agency.

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Across the Hudson River, New York City opened applications Jan. 3 for homeowners to apply through its program, offering up to $ 50,000 in interest-free repayable loans out of a $ 539 million pot.

New Jersey envisioned a program that would provide homeowners financially affected by the pandemic and earning less than 150% of their county’s median income with up to $ 35,000 so families don’t lose their homes, according to a planning document. of June.

“Nobody talks about people like me”

While assistance to tenants and landlords has been swift – New Jersey handed out more than $ 500 million in rent assistance by early January – landlords seeking help with their bills have not had the chance. same support.

Those with federally guaranteed mortgages could delay or reduce mortgage payments, but homeowners along with other lenders were at the mercy of their banks, which may not have offered forbearance. If they did, many lenders required homeowners to make up all missed payments in one lump sum at the end of the protection period, an unworkable option for families in distress.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a deal where more than 100 financial institutions would offer manageable forbearance and repayment plans, but that wasn’t a requirement with teeth made by executive order or bill in the Assembly legislative.

Yet those protections haven’t affected people like Alston, who owns his home entirely. Its property taxes are the problem in a state with the highest property taxes in the country.

And families in her situation are still at risk of losing their homes.

If a homeowner doesn’t pay property taxes by their city’s deadline – usually the end of the year – investors could bid on the home’s certificate of sale for tax purposes, essentially taxes a owner owes the city.

The winning investor pays the city the balance of property taxes due and can collect up to 18% interest from the owner. This process is designed to allow municipalities to continue to collect tax revenue so that they can pay for schools, roads, parks and other utilities on budget.

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If after two years the owner does not reimburse the taxes, penalties and interest owed, the lien holder can apply for foreclosure and obtain title and become the owner of the house for the price of the taxes paid. The previous owner is left with no equity, unlike a traditional foreclosure.

Tax lien sales are only tracked individually by municipalities, so the extent of distressed homeowners can be difficult to discern. A measure examines properties in tax lien foreclosure – these reflect homeowners who have not paid their property taxes for two years or more.

In 2021, 25,072 properties – both residential and commercial – were on lien foreclosure in New Jersey, according to data reported by municipal tax assessors to the Department of Community Affairs. The number has remained relatively stable over the past two years, with 24,731 seizures reported in 2019 and 25,312 in 2020.

“I feel like I hear about all of this tenant help, but no one is talking about people like me,” Alston said. “There are more of us. New Jersey is an expensive state.

“It continues to accumulate”

When Alston’s aging mother, a 35-year Newark School teacher, developed dementia, Alston had to dip into her savings to pay for home health care. After two years, the approximately $ 271,000 that would have been his legacy was gone.

After his death in 2019, Alston inherited the three-bedroom home he grew up in as a teenager. Emerald green carpet covers the floors, an improvement he made to make his mother more comfortable, as well as a stairlift – a folded chair that waits at the bottom of six steps to help his seated mother level up. following. Metal frames and loose photos sit atop a wooden piano, including a high school photo of her mother smiling in a white dress, her hair cut in half in the middle.

David Alston, 62, is shown in the bedroom of his Iselin home.  Alston lost his job and fell behind on property tax bills.  With problems getting unemployment money, a lien was issued for the property.  Monday, January 10, 2022

The house filled with memories of Alston’s childhood never felt unsafe – until the pandemic struck. A school bus driver, he wasted his hours when the school switched to online learning to stem the spread of the contagious COVID virus.

The complications and delays of unemployment drained his bank account and he had to prioritize what he could afford to pay. He took a temporary job as a driver for a funeral home, but quit after injuring himself loading and unloading coffins from the truck, adding even more headaches to his jobless claim.

A quarter here, another quarter there, and the debt from property tax payments he ignored has added up.

Woodbridge has placed a lien on the house. Alston got another job as a driver with a pay rise, which helped pay the lien of around $ 1,200 for his property tax and sewer bill.

But he still owes about $ 9,000 in taxes, interest and penalties, Alston estimates, and contributes $ 700 to $ 800 a month at a time. Meanwhile, new quarterly tax bills of $ 1,936 continue to arrive. While he’s paid his lien, if he hasn’t paid his unpaid taxes by the Woodbridge summer deadline, he risks another lien.

“The worst part is that it just keeps piling up … as you catch up with the old taxes, new interest and taxes are added to it,” Alston said.

Building his frustration, in the summer of 2020 Alston gathered his cable bills, along with PSE & G’s gas and water bills, totaling around $ 400, and sent the bills to Governor Murphy by certified letter.

“Why do we always get bills if we don’t get unemployment money to pay them? Alston said. “I see Murphy was working for Goldman Sachs and his net worth, so I said, ‘You have the money. I can’t have my money, but I’ve been working for 40 years. ‘ “

Murphy hasn’t paid Alston’s bills. But Alston tracked down the acknowledgment in the mail, an “MP” noted in pen in the signature field, acknowledging receipt.

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter who covers affordable housing and how it intersects with the way we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to his work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @abalcerzak


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