Fleeing family violence and the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika, Deyan Alfred immigrated to New Jersey from her native Dominica in 2015. “We had a hurricane issue all the time,” Alfred says. “Always a natural disaster story.”
Pregnant at the time, Alfred was lured by televised images of the good life in America. “Back home,” in the Windward Islands, “we watching stars, we watching movies, we watching news,” she says with a Caribbean lilt. “So when we see those things, I say, ‘Wow, I want to go to Coney Island when I go to America. And God make a way for me.’”
Having once owned a restaurant, she found seasonal employment as a cook at Newark’s Prudential Center. More recently, the 39-year-old Alfred worked as a home health care aide and a house cleaner—until the pandemic struck.
In April, her home-health client, a blind man in his 70s, died of Covid-19. Her cleaning work stopped, too. And Alfred herself contracted a monthlong case of Covid-19, which she treated with home remedies such as steam baths, herbal tea with ginger, and garlic water. Her economic security, already precarious, crumbled. Denied regular unemployment benefits, she has been unable to obtain Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the federal CARES Act. With food stamps but no steady income, she stopped paying her $675 monthly rent early in the year for the tiny, unheated, one-bedroom attic apartment in Orange that she shares with her daughter and, intermittently, her husband of 19 years.
Her current landlord, Vincent Soda, who bought the multiunit, yellow-frame 1926 house for $324,000 in late May, has started eviction proceedings. But, like thousands of New Jersey residents imperiled by the pandemic and widespread unemployment, Alfred is protected against eviction, for now, by New Jersey’s eviction and foreclosure moratorium.
“Police tell me they cannot put me out because it’s Covid time,” Alfred says.
Nevertheless, “the situation is dire, to say the very least,” says Jessica Kitson, senior managing attorney for the Newark-based Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. The organization, which represents Alfred pro bono, is already getting calls from tenants being locked out by landlords. Kitson says she expects to see a “tsunami of [eviction] filings” after the state moratorium expires.
Executive Order 106, issued March 19 by Governor Phil Murphy, has a somewhat murky end point: It will lapse two months after the current Public Health Emergency and State of Emergency orders are lifted. (A less sweeping federal moratorium promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—originally due to expire December 31, 2020—was recently extended to January 31, 2021.) The state order on evictions permits court filings, but, by halting enforcement, it essentially freezes tenants and landlords in place. Without rental assistance to help pay mounting back rents, experts agree, it is at best a temporary and imperfect fix for a much larger problem. A bill pending in the state Legislature would specify criteria for mortgage forbearance for homeowners and extended repayment schedules for renters affected by the pandemic.
“There’s so much talk right now about how Covid is causing an eviction crisis,” Kitson says. “And the reality is that we have had a significant eviction crisis in this country—and certainly in the state—for quite some time. What Covid is doing is worsening it at an alarmingly rapid rate and also shining a light on the many ways in which so many renters in New Jersey were very vulnerable to begin with.”
That vulnerability stems from a combination of high rents and high rates of urban poverty. A July 23 report by Stout, a global investment and advisory firm, titled, “The Potential Impact of Covid-19 Related Evictions in New Jersey,” found that nearly 75 percent of “extremely low-income renter households” with incomes below 30 percent of the area median were already “severely rent-burdened,” paying more than half their income in rent.
“So you add in a global health pandemic that resulted in people losing their jobs entirely, or losing hours, or having increased expenses in other ways,” Kitson says, “and it has put just unimaginable stress on families who were already struggling to make ends meet.”
The Stout report estimates that 40 percent of New Jersey renter households, or about 450,000, face being unable to pay the next month’s rent. After the eviction moratorium ends, the report suggests, the state could see as many as 304,000 eviction filings over a four-month period—about a 600 percent increase from pre-Covid-19 levels.
Alieza Durana, a media strategist for the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks eviction-related data nationwide, says Alfred is typical of those under threat. “Women are disproportionately targeted,” she says, “and Black women in particular.”
Indeed, the Stout report links race and economics. Approximately 49 percent of Black renter households in New Jersey face not being able to pay the next month’s rent, according to the report, compared to 18 percent of white renter households. But the problem isn’t economics alone. Even among those in similar financial straits, Durana says, “the grace extended to Black tenants is far more meager.”
The Eviction Lab, founded in 2018, is the brainchild of Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton and recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016), details the turbulent, eviction-riddled lives of families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eviction is not just a result of poverty, Desmond argues, but a key cause. Once a rental record is stained by an eviction filing, he discovered, tenants often spiral downward to increasingly substandard apartments or homelessness, as well as job losses.
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The Eviction Lab aims “to better understand the housing crisis and use data and research to inform solutions,” Durana says. “The homeowner is so enshrined in American culture and politics that the well-being of renters has been systematically ignored. That is the problem we’re seeking to solve.”
For landlords, too, as rents go unpaid and evictions stop, the problem becomes acute. Back at the yellow-frame house, on a modest street of similar houses a few blocks from Orange’s commercial corridor, there is plenty of frustration to go around.
Ariana Monroe (not her real name) was subletting the attic apartment to Alfred to help make her own rent before Soda bought the house. A Guyanese immigrant, Monroe resides with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild a floor below Alfred. Trained as a certified nurse assistant, Monroe has lived in the building for a quarter century.
Alfred owes Monroe back rent, though they disagree about how much, as well as about nearly everything else. When the payments stopped sometime early in 2020, their relationship deteriorated. Each claims the other has been harassing her. Their altercations—physical at times—have involved the police and, in Alfred’s case, a hospital visit. An August 19 police report confirms that both women had facial injuries.
Like Alfred, Monroe has had her trials. “I’m a Covid survivor!” she says shortly after opening the door. Before allowing me to enter, she wields a can of Lysol and sprays me with it—a ritual apparently meant to safeguard her family. Seated in a wheelchair, she shows me 63 stitches in her back from a bone-cancer surgery.
Monroe says without the sublet income from Alfred, she had to get an additional job as an airline cook. “As Black people, as poor people,” Monroe says, “I would like to put myself in a position to make it work.” But, she says, Alfred hasn’t offered even partial payment for back rent.
Soda, too, has a story. The owner of a small garbage business, the 27-year-old lives with his wife in the finished basement of the yellow house. He hopes one day to renovate and expand the attic apartment and move in himself. With a better living arrangement, he hopes he can gain custody of his three children from a previous marriage.
“I want to do some new vinyl siding, a new roof. She’s a house with a lot of potential,” Soda says, “but she definitely needs a little bit more love.”
When he took possession of the house in June, he says, he lowered Monroe’s rent—and that of her nephew, who lives on the first floor—by $300 each. He tried to give Alfred a separate lease for $675, the same rent she paid Monroe in 2019. “I can work with that!” he says. “I’m not a monster. I know what it is to struggle.” Alfred declined to sign a new lease. In September, Soda started eviction proceedings; he expects the case to go to mediation.
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Meanwhile, the two are warring over the apartment’s ramshackle condition. Monroe and Soda concede that Alfred’s heat is not working, one of several complaints lodged in a letter written on Alfred’s behalf by the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. “Who’s going to fix the heat, and you’re not paying for it?” says Monroe. “Who’s going to put their hand in their pocket?”
Kitson says that landlords in New Jersey have an obligation to keep an apartment habitable. Soda says that repairing the faulty pipes would require Alfred to relocate temporarily, which she refuses to do. Meanwhile, he has given her two space heaters, which Alfred says are insufficient. “The house is very cold,” she says. “I’m from the Caribbean. I feel it in my bones.”
There have been other disputes as well—about the electricity, the paint, the hot water, the broken door lock. Soda says he wanted to repair the lock, but Alfred denied him entrance. Instead, she uses a padlock—and the day of my visit, after lunch at a Caribbean restaurant in East Orange, she found she had inadvertently locked herself, and her daughter Gemini, out.
Inside the attic apartment, a small flat-screen television flickers, failing to keep Gemini’s attention. The name denotes her twinship. “The other one,” a boy, “didn’t make it,” dying in the womb, Alfred says. She and her husband have three older daughters, all living in Dominica with relatives.
On one table sits an open Bible. Another holds family photos and a money tree, believed to bring prosperity. Alfred has added a dollar bill to the tree to encourage faster growth, like fertilizer.
Alfred’s husband, she says, “comes and goes.” The relationship is volatile—he’s “stressed out” when he isn’t working, she says. In mid-November, he had a construction job and was living with her. But Alfred says that, rather than pay back rent, they will use his wages for a security deposit on a new apartment—if they can find a place they can afford. Essex County rents are steep, she says. They may settle for a single room.
With a pleasant laugh, Alfred shrugs off her defeats. “If I have my business, I’m good,” she says. “When you come in a country, it’s like you’re starting all over—it’s a hard time.” But she doesn’t regret the move to America. “I’ve been more free,” she says. “It just takes me some time to establish myself.”
Maybe one day she will even make it to Coney Island.
As for Soda, he has a different dream. “She can live up there for as long as the government says she can for free,” he says. “And then, once she’s out, I will chase her for all the money she owes me.”