Profile: Giving a Voice to Those Who Need, Advocate for Affordable Housing in NJ

Selena Handler | July 23, 2014 | Profiles
Staci Berger is raising visibility for community development and helping reform housing policy

Staci Berger
Who she is: Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. The Network is the statewide association of housing and community development organizations, working to improve housing choices and economic opportunities for all NJ residents. It engages in policy and advocacy work, provides technical assistance and training, and conducts research and innovation in the community development field.

Why she matters: According to Realtytrac, New Jersey is number one in the nation in foreclosure filings sparked by the economic crisis of 2008 and destruction from Hurricane Sandy. Thus, New Jersey’s housing development community needs a strong advocate. Berger speaks loudly and insistently on its behalf. Since moving up from director of advocacy and policy to president and CEO last April, she has worked tirelessly to bring affordable housing into the spotlight and to push reform efforts and building projects.

Housing and Community Development of New Jersey is the only statewide association of nonprofit housing developers. Each member-organization fills a different niche but all share a common goal: To make sure that every individual has a safe place to live and a job at a living wage.

Background: Born in the Boston area, Berger landed at Rutgers Livingston College for her undergraduate degree and then worked as a union organizer for Healthcare Professionals and Allied Employees, the largest private-sector nurses and phlebotomists organization.

Back at Rutgers she took a master’s degree from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy. Then she signed on as political and program director for Citizen Action.

In 2005, she made the leap to the Housing and Community Development Network, originally establishing the Advocacy Team model for the members, to enable them to be more engaged with local, state, and federal policymakers.

The “black hole of the budget:” One of the biggest challenges for the network organization is that the state has relentlessly underfunded community development, which makes it difficult for members to create homes and jobs in thriving neighborhoods, Berger says.

Still spiraling from the foreclosure crisis, members do not have enough resources and the current administration’s lack of a comprehensive response only worsens the housing climate. There are no dollars being put in to ensure that mortgages match the value of the homes and little money going to foreclosure counseling. Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed several bills designed to clean up the Residential Foreclosure Transformation Act that would make more homes affordable before they go into foreclosure.

In 2011, $75,000,000 was allocated for foreclosure remediation but was used instead to backfill gaps in the 2011 general budget. For the past four years the Affordable Housing Trust, intended to be a source of state investment in affordable homes, has been raided for funds to help close gaps in the general state.

To counteract these shortfalls, Berger and partners, including Fair Share Housing and the Supportive Housing Association, as well as others, have saved the $126,000,000 of the local-housing trust fund from what Berger calls the “black hole of the budget.”

Housing reform: In 2008, Berger was instrumental in passing Assembly Bill A-500, which she considers the most sweeping reform of housing policy. It prohibited regional contribution agreements that had previously allowed wealthier townships to pay less-affluent towns to take over up to half of their housing obligations.

Even then, there was not enough money in the budget to build new homes, so communities would pay to allow developers to fix up or add on to existing homes. This means, not only were they limiting the housing options in thriving neighborhoods, but also they were also were creating fewer homes in lower-income communities.

By prohibiting this behavior, wealthy municipalities are held accountable to their obligations to build, and new homes will be created in this time of great demand.

“This really allows people to have the option to live where they want, and everyone has a fair shot at living in a thriving community. We have great places to live in New Jersey and they should all be doing well,” Berger said.

Compassionate Sandy recovery: Although Hurricane Sandy made landfall almost two years ago, the network gets calls from individuals all the time who are struggling to put their lives back together.

“One gentleman, who I testified with, was a retired veteran living in a tent in someone else’s backyard,” she said. “I think our recovery has been lackluster and not as compassionate as people who have been through a disaster, not of their own making, should be.”

Sandy recovery gives the network an opportunity to say, “we can help,” to participate and to be a thoughtful partner for struggling communities, which is the network’s core mission.

Creating change beyond New Jersey: In 2005, Berger rallied 1,500 people to protest President George Bush’s plan for privatizing Social Security. On Bush;s first stop in Westfield, the protesters drove around the stage in a flatbed pickup truck to foil the plans of the Secret Service who intended to keep protestors in a pen.

Their appeal received national coverage.

“It was insane, like nothing I had ever seen before and I think we really changed the dynamic and changed the debate at the outset and that idea just died and hasn’t come back in any meaningful way,” Berger said.

Personal life: Berger is married to Bill Irwin. They have two kids Billy and Sam. She enjoys running, gardening, and knitting when she is not on the move at the Statehouse and building sites. She often knits while at her sons’ wrestling meets. As a child she wanted to be a doctor but the idea of gore and medical school turned her around.