Allies Needed in Campaign to Build Affordable Homes

Posted on October 31, 2019

Money, land and community support. New Jersey would have more affordable homes if all three were easy to come by.

They aren’t, of course, but at least one item on that list is about to get a little easier to find.

For the first time in nearly a decade, New Jersey’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund has been fully funded.

That was the good news that Staci Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, recently delivered to age-friendly community leaders.

Starting in 2020, an estimated $60 million will be available to build new homes and rehabilitate existing ones, Berger said.

“It should start rolling in soon,” Berger said.

Money from the trust fund, which is fed by the state fees charged on real estate transfers, has been diverted to plug other holes in the state’s budget in previous years. But advocates spent the last three years lobbying for change and successfully persuaded the Legislature and Governor Phil Murphy to end the practice in the state’s most recent budget.

Berger said community leaders should start working to identify partner organizations that could lead such building efforts as well as recruiting community advocates to join in supporting them.

The state Department of Community Affairs is currently working to finalize a “Request for Proposals” for affordable home projects eligible to receive money from the trust fund.

More than 40 municipal, county and non-profit representatives attended the Oct. 29 monthly meeting of the North Jersey Alliance of Age-Friendly Community Leaders to hear Berger and another non-profit housing leader speak about ways to both spark and strengthen campaigns to build affordable homes in their communities.

Jane Sarwin, director of external relations for the non-profit Region Nine Housing Corp., also had good news to communicate on the money front.

Her organization, which has built and manages 1,171 units of affordable housing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has the money and interest in building in North Jersey but has found it difficult to find available land, particularly in Bergen County.

“We have money but we don’t have a place to build,” Sarwin said.

She encouraged age-friendly community leaders to scout out vacant parcels or abandoned or underutilized buildings that could be converted into the kind of affordable housing communities her agency builds.

The organization builds housing specifically for seniors, families and people with disabilities. The supportive services its buildings offer – including heath and recreation programs and on-site case workers – make them ideal for older people who want to remain in their communities but need a little assistance to do so, Sarwin said.

Both Berger and Sarwin acknowledged that age-friendly community leaders will need to work hard to illustrate older adults’ housing struggles as a way to overcome the resistance that often comes from neighboring residents and governing officials.

The typical response builders get in seeking to build homes at affordable prices is “I don’t want people I don’t know moving into my community,” Berger said.

The alliance’s meeting was held in the 61-unit Brookdale Senior Living Residence in Teaneck, an affordable apartment building for older adults whose developers had to sue the township government twice – as well as neighboring Bogota – to be able to secure needed approvals.

The building had a 10-year wait list before the ceremonial ribbon was cut, a sign of the huge need among the region’s senior population for more affordable places to live.

Data collected by the HCDNNJ shows that 35 percent of extremely low-income renter households in New Jersey are senior citizens.

But in arguing for more low-cost options, it’s also important to point out that high housing prices are a problem across all ages and demographics in New Jersey, with 75 percent of respondents in one survey saying they “worry a lot” about affording where they live in the longer term, Berger said.

“Millennials are leaving New Jersey at a faster rate than other states,” Berger said. “We are in the sixth most expensive rental market in the country.”

A good argument to make in favor of building more affordable homes is that it is linked to better health, education and economic outcomes.

New Jersey affordable housing groups have been working with national housing and non-profit organizations to raise the issue’s profile.

At the “Under One Roof” statewide conference Berger’s organization sponsored earlier this month, speakers credited increased advocacy as the reason that many presidential candidates are now talking about the need for more affordable homes as part of their campaign platforms.

It’s great those conversations are happening on national stages, but they also need to happen on local stages, with North Jersey’s advocates, civic groups, business leaders, and government officials adding their voices.