Bergen United Way: 7,000 or more New Jerseyans on Affordable Housing Wait List

The State Supreme Court ruled to disband COAH, the Coalition on Affordable Housing, and return the power to approve affordable housing plans back to the courts. The deadline for towns to submit proposals for building more affordable housing was two months ago. In the meantime, Bergen County’s United Way has 61 special needs housing units in the works for some 7,000 people with disabilities who are on the waiting list. That number doesn’t include victims of domestic violence or others in need. Tom Toronto, President of the Bergen County United Way says Affordable Housing for people with disabilities is a moral obligation.

“If you mention the term affordable housing in the state of New Jersey I think most governing bodies, their eyes roll. It’s a morass. They’re not entirely sure what to do,” he said. “There’s a whole group of not-for-profits and some for-profit developers who are very experienced in building supportive housing. Probably the best solution to the housing mess, and in terms of the presentation of the individual municipalities to their local courts, is to have an active housing plan. In other words, to build something. And we’re all prepared and, in our case, we’ve worked very collaboratively with a number or different governing bodies. We have seven projects right now that are under construction.”

Toronto says the courts are looking for demonstrated evidence that a municipality has a meaningful Affordable Housing plan. “Often that means a bit of a paper mill, and I’m not discounting the need for a municipality to register and develop a plan, but what I’m suggesting is the best solution is to actually engage a developer and build much needed housing,” he said.

He says the issue The United Way has found when building housing is the danger that governing bodies feel about making a wrong step. “What we’ve managed to do, and others do it as well, is demystify the whole regulatory rigmarole that surrounds Affordable Housing and demonstrate that housing can be built,” Toronto said. “I’ll go one step further. It’s not uncommon for us when we’re working with a governing body or a planning board for a member of the governing body, a mayor, council member or planning board member to identify themselves as being a parent, an uncle, an aunt of a young person with developmental disabilities. We don’t find typically nimby objections at all to the population to be served. Of course we get the normal questions that any developer presenting a sight plan would get about drainage, the height of the building, the aesthetic look.”

New Jersey provides an incentive for towns to build supportive housing. However, Toronto says that he doesn’t think municipalities fully appreciate the fact that, in this case, one part of state government is matching resources against need. “The state has among the highest instance of autism of all states. We have 8,000 people or better on a waiting list for supportive housing. So the state has said that if municipalities engage developers and develop supportive housing, they will count each bedroom of supportive housing for people with developmental disabilities or mental health issues as if two bedrooms were built,” he said. “That incentive, I think that’s a tremendous incentive, and the quality of construction, the curb appeal of the projects that we’ve been building and others have been building, I think speak for themselves. So there’s a solution for governing bodies, and I think it begins in engaging a local developer and starting a conversation.”

Victims of domestic violence are categorized by the state Department of Human Services and the Housing Mortgage Finance Agency as being a special needs population because of the trauma that they’ve suffered. He says municipalities serving the domestic violence population can also gain the same government incentives as they do with other special needs groups. “So, in a sense, a municipality can gain additional Affordable Housing credits by serving this particularly needy population, both folks with developmental disabilities and the folks who have been the victims of domestic violence. There are also other categories, recently homeless veterans, for example, also count,” he said.

Toronto says he’s optimistic based on conversations The United Way have been having with governing bodies. “Success breeds success, and for us, as different mayors and councils have visited projects that we’re built in various communities throughout New Jersey, they tend to be inspired because of the curb appeal, if you will, of the particular projects,” he said. “More importantly, they also meet some of our tenants and see first-hand the difference in makes in the lives of the people who live there.”