LAKEWOOD – An assembly of civic leaders, bankers, and developers met recently to work toward dismantling roadblocks to affordable housing.
Mike McNeil, as the NAACP’s housing committee chair for the state, hosted the event held at the Lakewood Municipal Building. There are a lot of people working toward getting people into homes, and they were all under one roof. They gave short statements and then met afterward in a room where people could find out more about their programs.
The process to apply for affordable housing can be daunting, McNeil said. Some people give up because the process is so difficult. Or, they think they won’t qualify so they don’t bother. Other times, they wait until the housing is already built; by that time it’s too late.
The goal is to educate people in need how to navigate the process, he said. The other part is to educate decision makers about the need for affordable housing.
What is affordable to some might not be affordable to others. The state defines an affordable home as one that can be afforded by someone making much less than what the median income is in a region. Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer counties are in the same region, which puts the median income for a one-person home at $69,447. Low income would be someone making $34,723, according to documents provided at the assembly.
Affordable housing is a phrase that often makes local politicians curse under their breath, as some feel state regulations have taken away home rule and led to increased traffic, school taxes, costly lawsuits, and environmental impacts.
The speakers gave a different take on it. They said access to affordable housing is one of the most significant civil rights issues today. Everyone deserves to live in a safe neighborhood.
Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, explained some of the methods that are used to tell people that they can’t live a certain place. They include a landlord steering you away from certain neighborhoods, or a bank providing different lending terms based on race.
She shared a hotline for people who have experienced discrimination in housing: 866-405-3050.
Not only did people speak about creating more homes, but to keep homes affordable once an area begins to gentrify.
Jersey City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman explained how her city has been growing, and as it grows, it’s pushing out people who have lived there a long time.
Reva Foster, chair of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, spoke about pages and pages of sheriff’s sales in newspapers, indicative of people being unable to afford to live in their homes any more.
“Local officials decide who can live where based on income,” said Kevin Walsh. He’s the executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, a non-profit created to “end discriminatory or exclusionary housing patterns which have deprived the poor, particularly those presently living in inner cities, of the opportunity to reside in an environment which offers safe, decent, and sanitary housing near employment and educational opportunities.” Their history stems from a lawsuit in which the town of Mt. Laurel was accused of zoning in such a way that only rich people could afford to live there. As a result of the litigation, every town in New Jersey has to provide a certain portion of affordable homes.
There’s a mentality of ‘my children benefitted from a school, but we don’t want more kids in school,’ or ‘I just moved here, but no one else should move here because they bring traffic,’ he said. “They exclude on race even if they don’t realize it.”
This sentiment was echoed by Connie Pascale, a long-term advocate for underprivileged people.
“The racism that caused these problems are still there, either in the law or in their hearts,” he said.
Adam Gordon, with the Fair Share Housing Center, said they have been working with the state to get a central website for all affordable housing locations so that people looking for them can find them more easily.
Channell Wilkins, CEO of Ocean, Inc. said that it costs more for them to build an affordable unit than for a developer to build a market rate unit. He urged local politicians to extend the same breaks that other developers get to those making affordable units, such as PILOT programs (when a developer gets a tax break for several years).
Representatives came from many organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, the Red Bank Affordable Housing Corporation, and various banks and developers, as well as people looking for more information about housing.
The head of the Lakewood Housing Authority spoke about helping people move out of public housing, and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers talked about providing people with assistance for down payments and to prevent foreclosure.
Sen. Robert Singer (R-30th) told the group assembled that government has a moral obligation to make sure people have a safe place to live. Especially in an expensive state like New Jersey.
“You’re not judged by how you take care of the rich but how you take care of the poor,” he said, noting that Lakewood has always been good about giving land and giving breaks to people who want to live in the community.
Superior Court Judge James W. Palmer Jr. said that when he hears landlord-tenant matters, he always makes sure the evicted have some place to go.
“I think we are beginning to make a difference in Ocean County,” he said of the collective efforts of everyone involved.
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