TRENTON — Before the major announcement of the day, the imminent lifting of New Jersey's COVID-19 school mask mandate, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday reminded residents of a crucial tranche of funding for which eligibility opens up this week.

Applications will begin to be accepted at 9 a.m. Tuesday for the state's $325 million Emergency Rescue Mortgage Assistance Program, or ERMA.

As a two-and-a-half-hour hearing held by the Assembly Housing Committee last Thursday showed, the help comes not a moment too soon.

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With the expiration of COVID-era eviction moratoriums, foreclosure rates in the Garden State are expected to rise in 2022, but affordability alone is not the only issue, according to Melanie Walter, executive director of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

"There are currently 3,876 individuals experiencing homelessness across our state's approved-for-housing programs," Walter said. "They have available support to pay for housing, but there is no unit available for them."

The continued dearth of available housing, particularly that which is designated as affordable, coupled with New Jersey's still-high unemployment rate compared with the rest of the United States post-COVID, makes for a unique and hard-to-solve problem.

And it disproportionately affects the state's Black population, said Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates, the organization that oversees the annual, statewide Point-In-Time count of the homeless.

"While they represent about 13% of the population of the state and about 22% of the population experiencing poverty in the state, they represent about 50% of the population identified as experiencing homelessness," Kelly said, anecdotally adding that three times as many people are becoming homeless in New Jersey right now as are exiting the system.

She said New Jersey is not on track to alleviate homelessness as things currently stand, given a price tag of at least $262 million dollars, which amounts to 16% of all COVID relief funds earmarked for housing assistance in the state thus far.

Maura Sanders, Legal Services of New Jersey chief counsel, said that even for those who still do have a roof over their heads, education and outreach are just as important as affordability and availability.

"We urgently need additional funding for rental assistance to address this pandemic fallout, because so many that are contacting us still didn't even know," Sanders said. "They thought they weren't eligible, they didn't know what was available."

On Monday, Murphy said the state is taking steps to make such help more easily accessed.

"Free housing counseling will also be available to assist homeowners in applying for assistance as well as guiding them through all available options, and even working with their mortgage companies to get the best possible outcome," the governor said.

To learn more about ERMA or begin an application visit njhousing.gov or call 855-647-7700.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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