Consider these statistics:
It comes as no surprise when DePalma points out that Newark has the highest rate of eviction of all cities in New Jersey. Prepandemic, a typical court could see 200 cases a day, she adds. And out of a day’s lineup of cases, most landlords have legal representation, while most tenants are unrepresented. Tenants often don’t show up at all to court for the hearing of their case, which results in an automatic judgment in favor of the landlord even if the complaint is not valid.
“Being evicted from your housing affects stability in every aspect of life,” says DePalma. “Your health, your family’s health, your ability to keep a job, your children’s schooling....”
At Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), DePalma provides everything from advice through full representation at court for individuals facing eviction—most of whom are Black women. She points to a paragraph in an op-ed from Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper: “Six out of ten Black households rent their homes, and they’re twice as likely as white households to face eviction, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found. Black women especially are evicted at high rates, much like Black men are disproportionately incarcerated. As Matthew Desmond, the lead investigator of the Eviction Lab, wrote: ‘Poor Black men are locked up while poor Black women are locked out.’”
VLJ’s work is strictly pro bono. Clients are first screened for financial eligibility to ensure they qualify for services; then they receive advice, and the case is screened to see if any further assistance is required.
The nonprofit also meets with staff of law firms, corporations, and other community organizations and trains them on what the eviction process entails and what a tenant’s rights are, so if they are seeing someone with a tenancy-related problem, they can determine where in the eviction process a person is and the best next steps for that client. In addition to taking cases in-house, VLJ partners with many organizations to provide much-needed legal services to tenants through a network of more than 1,700 volunteers who are looking to provide services pro bono.
In March of 2020 as the pandemic took hold across the United States, New Jersey issued a moratorium on evictions that continued through the end of 2021. “The moratorium stopped removals, to prevent the spread of COVID. It’s hard to enforce a ‘stay at home’ order for public health while people are made homeless daily,” says DePalma. “We still saw a lot of illegal self-help evictions, where landlords lock tenants out or turn off their utilities. I’ve seen clients whose heat was turned off during the winter and others whose doors were boarded up. It’s cruel and reprehensible, not to mention completely illegal.”
DePalma adds that a lot of people misunderstood the moratorium to be a rent freeze—which it wasn’t. A tenant who didn’t pay rent couldn’t be evicted, but that money was still owed to the landlord. “Today, individuals whose eviction cases have been sitting around for a year or more have racked up stacks of back rent, so we’re seeing people carrying anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 in debt,” she says. “And while they can’t be evicted, they can still have a judgment against them for that money. Their wages can be garnished, which can be devastating when you are already struggling financially.”
That everything has moved online during the pandemic presents another huge obstacle for tenants who don’t have internet service or who can’t read. “New Jersey recently implemented a law that provides two protections for tenants facing eviction due to nonpayment of rent during pandemic months, but you have to complete an online certification,” says DePalma. “At my firm, we are on the phone filling out those certifications on behalf of tenants, but for every one person I help, there are probably 50 others who have no idea this certification exists. It’s forever an uphill battle.”
Additionally, landlord-tenant court has been occurring virtually, so tenants with technological issues are missing their trials through no fault of their own and then being evicted for failure to appear. DePalma spoke with an elderly tenant recently who was present in virtual court but could not unmute himself to indicate he was present, and the court entered a judgment against him for failure to appear. He can now be evicted.
Even if the judgment in an eviction case ends in favor of the tenant, there are negative consequences. “I’ve seen cases where a big corporate landlord has filed in error, and we can resolve that pretty quickly,” says DePalma, “but the filing of an eviction stays on your record permanently. That impacts your ability to find new housing and makes it hard to get credit.” With the recent passage of bill P.L. 2021 c.189, some eviction records filed between March 2020 and December 2021 will be sealed, but landlords have been finding ways around this law and sharing records with each other in online forums.
Why is DePalma driven to this work, which is emotionally exhausting and rarely recognized? “It’s a very small way I can give back to the communities I live in, work in, benefit from,” she says.
That desire to serve her community blossomed in her experience at Moravian, beginning with a mentorship program for local high school students, some of whom told her they might be forced to drop out and get a day job to help support their families. “Putting food on the table gets chosen every time over going to school,” DePalma points out.
In her senior year, DePalma volunteered with a small nonprofit that provided services to Syrian refugees. She wrote her honors thesis on mass incarceration. “I loved Moravian,” she says. “There was always something to do to benefit someone in the community. “My whole life, I’ve been chasing that feeling that you are doing something that’s bigger than you,” she adds.
DePalma captures that feeling at Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. “I care about my clients and their families, and so many of them have nowhere to turn. Losing your home is terrifying and puts immense stress on a person. It’s high-stakes work; my clients are trusting me with their housing outcomes, and I don’t take that lightly. This work is incredibly important to me; it’s the reason I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.
“Plenty of cases have great defenses, but without counsel, so many tenants are evicted not knowing their rights or possible defenses,” she adds. “Justice is not something that should evade a person based on their income and ability to hire private counsel. Your right to live in a safe, decent, and affordable home should not depend on how much money you have. Everyone deserves safety, decency, and shelter.”