NJ has an affordable housing problem. Here's what experts say needs to be done

·7 min read

New Jersey does not have enough affordable housing. Shelters are barely treading water. People at risk of eviction don’t know where to get help. Families are suffering.

These were among the repeated refrains from homeless shelter officials, lawyers and housing advocates speaking at an Assembly Housing Committee hearing Thursday that focused on New Jersey’s eviction and homelessness crises, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers are repeatedly heralding a renewed focus on "affordability" this session, and housing is one of the largest expenses a family faces.

Here are the most pressing housing problems plaguing the state, progress being made to help families, and suggestions experts shared to address housing instability:

Shelters are struggling

Homeless shelters are losing money, capacity and workers — all while serving a more distressed group of people, said Connie Mercer, CEO of Mercer County-based nonprofit HomeFront and a member of the Shelter Providers Consortium, which consists of 110 shelters across the state.

“Even in pre-pandemic times, shelter guests were a real tough population — by the very nature of their presence in the shelter, you know something has gone terribly wrong in their lives,” Mercer said. “From terrified pregnant single women to recovering addicts to reentry clients, each client brings their own trauma, and the inhumane amount of stress they are dealing with often leads to acting up and disruption.

“Shelters across the board are reporting guests displaying behavioral problems over and above what they exhibited prior to the pandemic,” Mercer said.

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Many shelters don’t have mental health services in their facilities, and telehealth services aren’t suited to a traumatized homeless population, Mercer said.

Shelters have “always been grossly underfunded” and rely on “significant private dollars,” Mercer said. Because many shelters had to cut capacity to create space for social distancing, they lost out on public funds tied to the number of people they serve. HomeFront suffered a $975,000 deficit last year, Mercer said.

“We’re being stretched to the breaking point,” she said.

That capacity cut shows up in statewide data.

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Each year, counties send data to the federal government that includes how many people stayed in shelters — and on the street — on one night in January. This year’s count showed that 3,770 people stayed in shelters, warming centers and publicly funded hotels, according to Melanie Walter, executive director of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. That’s a significant decrease compared with the 5,823 people in shelters in 2021.

Adding complications, shelter workers typically make little more than minimum wage, and many are leaving for higher-paid, less stressful positions.

“Our front-line workers, they can get better pay at Amazon or Wawa, and they get a signing bonus besides,” Mercer said. “And that’s the sort of job you can leave at the door when you check out rather than having to deal with the emotional fallout of working with traumatized shelter guests all day. It’s become a huge issue for everybody across the board.”

Not enough housing or access to resources

In New Jersey, 3,876 individuals experiencing homelessness have been approved for housing assistance programs, but there are no apartments available to them, Walter said.

“The core challenge in New Jersey is not particularly unique or new — there are not enough affordable homes,” said Sarah Steward, chief operating officer for HomeFront. “For years our families have been participating in what feels like a big game of musical chairs, searching for the few limited affordable places for themselves and their children. COVID-19 was the moment when the music stopped and it became even more obvious that there were not enough seats or enough homes to go around.”

New Jersey’s housing assistance is often wrought with bureaucratic barriers, Steward said. For example, many families who are renting but don’t have leases are barred from programs that would have helped them, said Kim Ruiz, CEO of the Perth Amboy-based nonprofit Puerto Rican Association for Human Development.

The state needs more flexible immediate assistance for families, they said.

Another recurring problem for the homeless population is lack of access to identification, and most assistance programs require an ID to participate.

“I’m sitting on a lot of money that I can’t give out,” Mercer said. “Before the pandemic, it was hard to get an ID. Now it’s all but impossible. We need to get creative and consider a temporary ID system.”

In 2021, New Jersey saw three times more people fall into homelessness than those who left homelessness and found permanent housing, said Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit that organizes the state’s annual homeless count.

“Unfortunately, we are not on par to end homelessness in the state of New Jersey,” Kelly said. She estimated that the state needed a $262 million targeted investment to provide stable, affordable housing for 14,000 people who stayed in shelters at one point during 2021.

Mercer suggested New Jersey appoint a “homelessness czar” within the governor’s office to tackle housing instability and commit to making the issue a priority.

Speakers did point to a handful of successes.

The HMFA’s program that offers funds to families to make down payments on their first homes helped a record number of families, increasing assistance by 50% to a more diverse base, particularly Hispanic female borrowers, Walter said.

The state Department of Community Affairs, which administers the largest Section 8 voucher program, moved 2,600 people off the waiting list and provided them with rental vouchers that cover a portion of their rent, said Janel Winter, director of the department's Division of Housing & Community Resources.

Evictions resumed

Legal Services of New Jersey is receiving a “sharp increase” in calls from people looking for help because they are about to be evicted, said Chief Counsel Maura Sanders.

Many of the clients were unaware they even had an eviction case against them until a constable showed up at their door, Sanders said. Attorneys are concerned that the renters they talked to were unaware of renter protections and rental assistance available, and by the time they discovered the programs, there wasn’t money left.

The state passed out more than $650 million in rental aid to 70,000 families, Winter said. Although the state closed its applications in December, it still encourages renters to submit applications in case New Jersey receives more funding in the future.

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Large rent increases are also forcing out tenants as landlords try to collect more money and recoup lost payments during the eviction moratorium, said Staci Berger, CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Other landlords who had put off making improvements to their properties during the early stages of the pandemic are increasing rents to cover the needed repairs. Sanders suggested the state offer support to small landlords to make improvements in the form of forgivable loans if they keep rent stable at fair market rates and rent to people at or below their county's median income.

Sanders also suggested that the courts offer more computers for tenants to get access to their eviction proceedings, and perhaps hire technology resource officers to help people upload the documents they need.

Last year, the Legislature allocated $2 million to Seton Hall University, Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden to provide legal assistance to those at risk of eviction, a program lauded by the White House.

Seton Hall used the funds to train 28 law students and 24 volunteer attorneys, said Lori Outzs Borgen, director of Seton Hall Law’s Center for Social Justice. At Rutgers, students assisted more than 350 families.

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: balcerzaka@northjersey.com

Twitter: @abalcerzak

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ's affordable housing crisis has been exacerbated by COVID