No Easy Fix To Create Affordable Rentals — Sunday, August 11, 2013

Written by
Pamela MacKenzie

CENTRAL JERSEY — Marge Stewart and Flo Faust consider themselves fortunate to have found a community of cluster homes for seniors in Warren.

Owned and maintained by Cooperative Housing of Somerville, the rental building where they live has private units with bedrooms and bathrooms for low- to moderate-income residents 62 and older. There are five to 10 residents per building, and together they share a common living room, kitchen, dining room, craft room and housekeeping services. In addition to their rent, which is no more than 30 percent of their income, they pay a monthly fee for services that include meals, and they can take trips and do other activities together. Stewart said she finds the company of others stimulating. Faust gets satisfaction from baking for others.

"We especially love her cheesecake," said Marymae Henley, assistant director of Cooperative Housing.

Henley said that her company has several cluster homes in Warren and Bridgewater, all designed for seniors or special-needs adults. The residents are all interviewed extensively so that Cooperative Housing and the residents are confident that these homes will be a good fit, and the staff continues to make sure that the housing remains a good fit for the residents as they live there. Founded in 1986, Cooperative Housing now owns and manages about 35 cluster homes.

"We'd like to have more," Henley said. "We're always looking for new places. We focus on blending in, and we want our homes to fit with the communities around them."

Under the affordable housing requirements in the state of New Jersey, every municipality is supposed to have a certain number of homes that are priced to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income families. Within that mix, some of the units can be designated for special-needs individuals or senior citizens.

The question is whether there is enough stock of affordable rental units to meet the region's need.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 34 percent of all households in New Jersey. are renters, and 25 percent of those renter households are low-income. The coalition says there is a statewide shortage of 1,889,044 available and affordable homes for extremely low income renters.

According to the coalition, the Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon County hourly wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment is $25.46. The two-bedroom fair market rent (average) is $1,420, with an income of $56,800 needed to afford that rent. An individual would have to hold 3.8 fulltime jobs if earning only the minimum wage.

Sharon Clark, executive director for Central Jersey Housing Resource Center, whose Raritan-based agency is a strong advocate for affordable housing said, "Our statistics for the first six months of 2013 show that the average household size is three-person with an average income of $32,000 a year. If they were to spend 30 percent of their gross income on rent, they should try to find a two-bedroom apartment for $800 a month or less.

"With so many of our households seeking affordable rental apartments being single parents, they are unable to work two or more jobs to afford the apartments that exist," she added. "Since the housing stock in our area rarely has apartments in the $800-a-month-or-less category, they often rent apartments beyond their means, and each month it is a struggle to make ends meet and pay the rest of their bills."

Do towns object?

Henry Kent-Smith, an attorney at the Fox Rothschild law firm's Princeton office, has been an advocate of affordable housing for many years. He has deep concerns that towns are systematically zoning out affordable rental housing. He said the two biggest objections that planning boards raise are that they don't want to dramatically raise their school population, and they are concerned that a large high-density development of rental units will overwhelm their roads with traffic.

Kent-Smith cited a study by the Bloustein School of Public Policy a few years ago that showed that large subdivisions of rentals do not attract many school-age children. Instead, they attract mostly single adults and couples who don't have children. Once couples become parents, they generally move to homes.

He also said that studies have shown that New Jersey residents tend to commute longer distances to their workplaces than citizens of many other states. He said that if low-income people could live in the towns where they work, this would actually reduce traffic, not contribute to it.

The fact is, most constituents in Central Jersey towns don't want a lot more housing near their homes, said Clark. She said there may be good reasons for that, such as the fact that the sewers might not support it, or the land might not support it. Municipalities in Somerset County, the primary county for her organization, were very good at meeting their affordable housing requirements, she said. But most of the affordable units have been sales, not rentals. Towns like the owner-occuppied units because owners take pride in maintaining their homes, she said.

Two solutions

North Brunswick and East Brunswick, have developed different strategies to tackle the problem of affordable rentals.

North Brunswick has formed a partnership with Community Investment Strategies of Lawrence to buy and renovate a complex of 16 two-story apartment buildings in town known as the Oak Leaf Village Apartments. Built in the 1970s, these apartments were long neglected and in serious need of repairs. The township has contributed about $5.25 million to the purchase of the complex and has developed a plan with CIS to ensure that some of the units will go to homeless veterans and other homeless people. When completed, the renovated community will have 153 one-bedroom units and 30 two-bedroom units for low- and moderate-income tenants.

Michael Hritz, the director of North Brunswick's Department of Community Development, said Oak Leaf Village is being renamed North Brunswick Crescent, and CIS is going to be renovating two buildings at a time, completely gutting them and installing all new appliances and upgrades. As they do this, current residents are being temporarily moved into vacant units. Once the new units are available, the current residents who qualify will be the first ones to get the improved apartments.

While this project does not create new housing, it is a much needed improvement. North Brunswick did not have rental units under the affordable housing umbrella before, and the township hopes to satisfy virtually all of its current obligations with this project.

East Brunswick has taken a different approach to affordable rentals. Linda Rubenstein of the The East Brunswick Community Housing Corp. (EBCHC) explained in a written statement that her private nonprofit exists "to provide affordable housing for low- and very low-income households who would otherwise not be able to secure decent housing in East Brunswick."

The EBCHC buys condominiums in existing communities and then rents them at affordable rates to families who qualify under the state's income guidelines. She added that the corporation's operating expenses are covered by rental revenue. No municipal funds go into maintaining EBCHC's property, but the corporation's units count toward fulfilling East Brunswick's affordable housing obligations. EBCHC's funding comes from the Middlesex County Home Partnership program, N.J. Home Funds and the East Brunswick Development Fee Trust Fund.

Rubenstein said in a written statement that EBCHC owns and rents out 60 low-income rental units, and tenants are chosen by a lottery. EBCHC is the only provider of affordable renting in the township; all other affordable units in East Brunswick, included in developments, are for sale.

She added that tenants really like this integrated approach to creating affordable rentals. They are not segregated from the rest of the community, and nobody knows they are in affordable units.

More is needed

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye of New Jersey Citizen Action, with offices in Highland Park and other places throughout the state, said much more affordable rental housing is needed in New Jersey. She added that so many homeowners who lost their homes in hurricane Sandy are now in rentals that the problem is much worse than a year ago.

"There wasn't a lot of provision for the HUD block grants under Sandy relief for rental housing," she said. "We successfully petitioned HUD for a bit more for rentals, but it's not enough."

Kent-Smith said that until municipalities are forced to look at the need for affordable rentals, local governments will not appreciate their value. The uncertainty about affordable housing requirements under the Christie administration has left towns wondering if creating additional affordable units is really necessary.

"The only leverage a developer of rental housing has to try to build apartments in municipalities opposed to density is the Mt Laurel builder remedy threat," he said. "Clearly Gov. Christie's opposition to affordable housing has emboldened municipal resistance to rental housing. The governor's policy actually hurts New Jersey's economy by limiting affordable, work-force housing."

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