Supportive Housing Association Director: NJ Needs More Affordable Housing

The Supportive Housing Association‘s comprehensive guide was designed to help families navigate the labyrinth of bureaucracies. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently asked SHA Executive Director Gail Levinson how a lack of affordable housing disproportionately affects people with developmental disabilities.

Levinson: People with disabilities often live on very low incomes. It’s a result of mental illness, addiction, an intellectual or developmental disability or a severe physical or mobility impairment. As a result of that it’s hard for an individual with a disability to afford New Jersey’s high cost of living.

Williams: There are 13,000 people currently on waiting lists for affordable housing. Is there any movement to build any more?

Levinson: One of the struggles we’ve had over these past many years is that New Jersey has a wonderful public policy with regard to affordable housing. We just haven’t implemented it well. We do have many thousands of people living in substandard housing or living at home with aging parents who would like to be out on their own living in safe, decent housing but there’s simply not enough of it.

Williams: And you’re not seeing any movement toward building more?

Levinson: Well we would like to. Right now municipalities throughout the state are obligated to work with local trial courts and negotiate with advocates on their housing obligations.

Williams: But that was always the case. We haven’t really seen a lot of movement, is that what I’m hearing you say?

Levinson: Well, we would like to see a lot more.

Williams: An Ocean County superior court justice just set a very high benchmark for towns to meet in building and making available affordable housing. Do you have any trust that towns are going to meet that?

Levinson: I’m hoping. I’m hoping that the trial court judges — including the judge in Ocean County — will begin setting the bar higher. The League of Municipalities has, we think, set the bar very low indicating that only 37,000 units of housing would be necessary statewide. We think that’s far too low and hoping that ultimately there will be something in the neighborhood of 200,000 or more.

Williams: Is that your biggest issue with the League of Municipalities? I know you’ve taken issue with a lot of what it’s proposed.

Levinson: Well we’re hoping that rather than using the Fair Housing Act as a way to diminish their obligation and to try to prevent people who live on very low incomes including the individuals I care about, people with disabilities, rather than using this to prevent them from access to communities, we’re hoping that they take advantage of the law and increase affordable housing.

Williams: There’s a notion out there that people with disabilities or low income should be in, what’s the word, aggregate congregate housing, where they’re basically housed in state institutions. You say that’s wrong. Where did the idea come from?

Levinson: Well we have spent many, many years isolating individuals with disabilities in institutional settings and we’ve come a long way. We’re closing our institutions. We still have many congregate facilities at the local level — group homes and licensed community residences — and while they will always be there for people who require 24-hour, seven day a week care, most people with disabilities want to live like the rest of the world in mainstream housing as renters.

Williams: Tell me how your guide facilitates the ability to navigate this bureaucratic system to find housing in the first place.

Levinson: We’ve been working on this housing guide for about a year and a half now — “Journey to Community Housing with Supports”. This is a grant from the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities and we’re working with our partner Autism New Jersey. We offer a wide variety of housing models that we want people to read and perhaps take bits and pieces of each and create their own individual option. We have a lot of information about funding and resources. While there is still not enough, there’s a lot out there that people should be aware of and we’re hoping people will begin to create customized housing for themselves that move in the direction of integration in communities of their choice.

Williams: What will it take to make housing affordable?

Levinson: There’s many different answers to that. The first thing is the towns have to come to the table and work with us, but in addition to that there are housing vouchers, rental subsidies. We’re pleased that the Christie administration and the Department of Community Affairs and the Department of Human Services are stepping up to the plate in the last few months. There are 1,000 new housing vouchers for people with disabilities and another 1,000 people with disabilities being taken off the waiting list for the department. So these are wonderful steps forward. We need a lot more and these are solutions.

Williams: Gale Levinson, thank you.

Levinson: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.