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Op-Ed: Affordable Housing for Citizens with Special Needs is a Moral Obligation

With new chance to address demand for high-quality, affordable housing, towns have another chance to protect most vulnerable citizens

tom toronto
Tom Toronto

As towns prepare to submit updated housing plans for judicial approval over the next several months, New Jersey families with special needs are entering an exciting time.

In those plans, municipalities will have the opportunity to address the pressing need for high-quality, affordable housing for some of the most vulnerable New Jerseyans, including those with autism and other developmental disabilities, as well as domestic-violence victims.

In a unanimous decision this spring, our state Supreme Court affirmed New Jersey's commitment to fair and inclusive housing policies, and jumpstarted a process to update each municipality's obligation to provide its fair share of housing for working families and those with special needs. Initial legal filings from towns as a result of the court's decision were due in early July.

The intensive litigation around this issue in recent years has put many local officials into a defensive crouch about the Mount Laurel Doctrine, the requirement embedded in New Jersey's constitution that requires local officials to provide fair-housing opportunities to their residents.

Yet I believe that the new legal clarity from the courts provides a welcome opportunity for towns to be proactive by working cooperatively with supportive housing developers and advocates to address the pent-up needs of New Jersey families.

The demand for better housing opportunities could not be clearer in a state with the highest rates of autism in the nation. The waiting list for New Jerseyans with developmental disabilities who are seeking supportive housing options now stands at more than 7,000. And aging parents of children with special needs are deeply concerned about the lack of long-term housing options for their children.

Bergen County's United Way has stepped up to confront this challenge with 61 special-needs housing units in the pipeline from Mahwah to Tenafly. In Fort Lee, we are building five apartments and a four-bedroom group home for people with developmental disabilities. And in New Brunswick, we are constructing 10 units for victims of domestic violence, where they can recover and rebuild their lives in safety.

These are just some of the successful projects across New Jersey that are coming to fruition because of close relationships between advocates and municipal officials. Our work has given me a firsthand look at the transformative effect high-quality housing opportunities can have on most fellow New Jerseyans with special needs.

These and other projects across the state provide New Jerseyans living with special needs with dignified places they can call their own. While supportive housing takes many forms, from group homes to garden apartments, these opportunities often also provide crucial wraparound and supportive services to stabilize and assist families -- including educational opportunities, access to social workers and treatment options. They are less costly and provide better outcomes than other, less-comprehensive approaches and provide families with needed stability in turbulent times. They can even prevent homelessness.

Our state is fortunate to have a development and advocacy community that is ready to partner with towns to bring similar projects online to benefit the special-needs community. We have the experience to navigate New Jersey's housing rules and to leverage state, federal and local funding sources to meet the needs of New Jerseyans.

I call on municipalities across North Jersey to take advantage of this opportunity and the tools that our state's policies give them to develop and implement fair housing plans that include robust opportunities for families with special needs in our communities. Recognizing the importance of these opportunities, our state incentivizes them by awarding bonuses against municipal-housing obligations to towns that develop certain types of supportive housing. And towns can also use their local housing-trust funds to provide critical financing for these projects.

But the need to develop quality supportive housing opportunities isn't just a legal mandate governed by obligations, bonuses, and credits. It's also a moral one. The people who need these housing are our brothers, sisters, and friends. They have lived in our communities their entire lives and need our help to continue to do so with dignity.

Tom Toronto is president of Bergen County's United Way and a board member of the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey.

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