The eviction protection measures New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed last year to stave off a wave of tenant displacement have prompted the dismissal of more than 10,000 cases in landlord-tenant court so far, state officials said.

But housing advocates say even as the law kept thousands in their homes, the rules weren’t uniformly applied across every county, and likely resulted in tenants who should have been protected nonetheless losing their homes.

“The law has made an enormous difference in that it has protected thousands of people from being evicted based on debt that arose during the height of the pandemic,” said Catherine Weiss, chair of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. “Landlords have been resisting some of the protections of the law since it was enacted and that resistance has the effect of displacing, causing evictions for tenants who are unrepresented and don't fully understand what their rights are under the law — and therefore are very, very vulnerable to arguments that the law is narrower than in fact it is.”

Eviction filings are now back on the rise, reaching the highest levels since the pandemic began, as state rental assistance programs dry up. About 58,000 eviction filings were made in the first seven months of 2022, more than double the 25,600 filed in the same period last year but shy of the 86,500 filed between January and July 2019, records show.

The courts, meanwhile, are slogging through a backlog of more than 31,000 cases, management reports show. Tenancy cases are considered backlogged if they take more than two months to process.

Murphy signed the anti-eviction law last August, in a compromise between tenant advocates and landlords. It allowed renters financially harmed by the pandemic to stay in their homes and established a $750 million fund for rental and utility assistance. Tenants earning less than 80% of their county’s median income were protected from evictions for any missed payments between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021. Those earning more than 80% of the county’s median income were protected for a shorter window, through August 31st.

But to claim those protections and have courts dismiss eviction proceedings, renters have to self-certify on a form that they couldn’t make payments due to the pandemic, and that they applied for rental assistance. The Department of Community Affairs said 62,903 forms have been filled out to date, and tenants are still encouraged to apply.

Of those self-certification forms, 10,280 — about 16% — had led to dismissals through the end of July, the courts said.

The law also allowed landlords to recoup owned payments for the same time period by filing civil suits against tenants. Judiciary spokeswoman MaryAnn Spoto said the courts were aware of at least 2,170 cases filed since September 2021 by landlords seeking to collect rent from the COVID-19 period.

Derek Reed, an attorney and board member of the Property Owners Association of New Jersey, said the number of civil suits was likely an undercount but predicted the number of lawsuits would increase if the courts don’t move more quickly through eviction filings.

“That's the last resort for all the landlords. Certainly you don't want to chase tenants for money either and sue them and try to levy the assets. That’s not what the business model is. It's to provide housing and to get paid for that,” he said.

He said cases in Essex County were taking at least 10 months from their filing dates to “remove a person who's not paying or who is causing problems at the property.”

Essex County, one of the busiest courthouses, accounts for half the number of stalled cases, records show. The county is home to Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city.

“If you have one, two, or sometimes even three tenants not paying you rent and it takes you 10 months to remove that tenant, it creates a really, really tough financial and economic position for those people,” Reed said.

The courts are grappling not only with implementing the anti-eviction laws but also with an overhaul to the landlord-tenant process that was ordered by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner last July to achieve more equity in the system.

Rabner ordered most proceedings to occur virtually, giving judges the discretion to schedule in-person hearings on a case-by-case basis. He also required landlords provide the court with their lease agreements and for renters to submit statements before trial. Mandatory pre-trial meetings were also instituted to try and reach settlement before trial.

According to the courts, less than 2% of tenants are represented in eviction court by lawyers, while more than 85% of landlords have attorneys.

“I hope that we're heading into a direction where it's not just such the feeling of a conveyor belt, where it's not just a feeling that if the landlord asks for it, they're going to get it,” said Allison Nolan, a senior staff attorney with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. “Because when you go to court, it's expected that you'll be able to prove your case.”

But the reforms have also had a bumpy rollout. Tenant advocates and landlords say the all-virtual proceedings don’t work for every party and can cause access issues for those with no connectivity or delay the entire process. To address concerns, the Essex County Courthouse is implementing a pilot program next month and holding two weeks of virtual hearings followed by two weeks of in-person hearings to see whether any adjustments should be made.

Weiss said she and other tenant advocates are also still fighting to ensure the anti-eviction protections passed a year ago are fully enforced.

A report by the Housing Justice Project at Seton Hall Law School found examples of tenants who should have had their cases dismissed under the law because they owed rent from when the protections were in place, but either the clerk failed to dismiss the case or the judge misapplied the law.

Tenant attorneys and the landlord groups are fighting in court over how the law has been applied and what should happen to tenants who owe rent for months covered under the law as well as for payments in 2022. The Appellate Division is expected to issue a ruling soon.

“What's missing from the conversation is that tenants are still not stably employed. Not all of the jobs that they previously occupied have come back,” Weiss said. “People are being displaced into a market they absolutely cannot afford because there's just such an incredible shortage of affordable housing in the state.”