Finding Affordable Housing Not Easy in New Jersey

By Brenda Flanagan

With a snip and applause, Newark welcomed 56 brand new affordable apartments for low-income seniors this year. They’re clean, safe and subsidized. Tenant Constance Epps says she prayed for 15 years.

“We were blessed to be able to move in here. We are elated,” Epps said.

Here’s the bad news.

“We have another 20,000 trying to get into public housing. Many of those are seniors, little kids — they’re long-term residents — and the average wait time’s over 10 years,” said Newark Housing Authority Executive Director Keith Kinard.

Newark’s not alone. With an estimated one-third of residents spending more than half their income just on rent, the lack of affordable housing in New Jersey can force low-income working families to live crammed into a single room. In wealthy Princeton, folks of modest means struggle to find a home.

“It took more than three years [to get an affordable housing unit] because the list is very, very, very long,” said Pierre Valmet.

Valmet works at Princeton University and finally got a three-bedroom unit in Community Village for almost $1,400 a month.

“Our waiting list now for affordability housing is over 1,000 families long,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert.

Princeton’s among several hundred New Jersey municipalities that must now come up with a plan to build their fair share of affordable units. That’s because, for decades, many suburban towns resisted building apartments like these until New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled — twice — that the Constitution demands it. So, the state set up a Council on Affordable Housing — or COAH — which also failed to accomplish the task.

“It was alarming it took a court decision to force for COAH to meet,” said Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry Rev. Craig Hirshberg.

The high court this spring finally ordered towns to develop their own plans. And today’s the deadline for towns to inform the court they intend to file a plan — or risk getting sued by developers and advocacy groups that will compel them to build.

“They’ve no problem providing housing opportunities for wealthier folks, but suddenly, oh, it’s just so hard when you’re dealing with housing for working folks and people with disabilities and for seniors on fixed incomes,” said Fair Share Housing Center Associate Director Kevin Walsh.

“There are some towns that were notorious in flouting the law. and I can only hope justice will finally be done,” said Lori Grifa.

Grifa ran Gov. Chris Christie’s Department of Community Affairs and says prior efforts to build affordable housing never succeeded.

“We all know somebody who needs a safe and decent place to live. And hopefully, in a state with less than 1 percent vacancy for rental housing, we’re gonna see some new housing starts,” Grifa said.

Various judges will be assigned to review each town’s affordable housing plan. If the judge accepts a plan, that town could be granted immunity from developers’ lawsuits. If a plan is rejected, the judge could actually overrule the town’s zoning code.

“Because we’re a desirable town, we see our property tax rates going up, our property values going up and we understand affordability is a huge issue,” Lempert said.

The mayor says although Princeton will file a plan, town officials remain unsure how many affordable units it should include. Compounding the problem: two sets of numbers. A study commissioned by COAH projected New Jersey towns would need to more less than 30,000 new units in the future — that, plus a backlog of about 21,000 others. But Fair Share Housing’s study estimated New Jersey needed more than 200,000 new units — on top of an 86,000-unit backlog.

“In order to create a realistic opportunity for the construction of affordable housing, you have to set realistic goals. And the numbers that Fair Share Housing advocates are patently unrealistic,” said attorney Jeffrey Surenian.

Surenian represents about 40 towns that will submit plans but still lack direction.

“It is a waste of the public’s tax dollars to expect municipalities to comply without telling them what standards they need to apply for,” he said.

Urban aid towns like Newark are exempt from the court ruling, but developers like Michaels say they’re keenly aware of the court ruling’s impact in the suburbs.

“And we are definitely looking to find opportunities in suburban areas because that’s where the funding is going, so that’s where we need to position ourselves,” said Michaels Vice President Ginger Dawson.

She hopes towns agree to work with them up-front — rather than face lawsuits. But the controversy over affordable housing is likely to continue developing through litigation.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.