Op-Ed: Finding Homes for the Disabled and the Poor in All of Our Communities

Gail Levinson | December 27, 2016 | Opinion, Winter 2016
Much more can and should be done to solve our housing crisis; limiting access is not a solution

Gail Levinson
A primary goal for individuals with disabilities is the desire to be accepted and included in local communities. So why does the New Jersey League of Municipalities, which represents the interests of towns and cities, exclude rather than accept them?

In the continuing saga to implement our state’s Fair Housing Act and the Mount Laurel decision, the league commissioned studies to suggest that towns and cities not be obligated to house the poor. Since residents with disabilities often live on very low incomes, this proposal is of great concern to disability advocates. The league also believes towns should not be responsible for creating housing to adjust for the 15-year gap from 2000 to 2015 when virtually no affordable housing was built. “The past is the past and people must have found places to live” is what their argument boils down to. The Supportive Housing Association has joined Disability Rights New Jersey and 13 other disability-advocacy organizations in filing amicus briefs opposing the league’s efforts. In a recent Ocean County decision, the judge rejected the League’s gap argument. Advocates are hoping that judicial rulings on housing plans in other communities will do the same.

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In a state of 8 million people, the league argues that only 37,000 units of affordable housing are needed in a 25-year period beginning in 2005. Yet according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, New Jersey ranks as the fifth-most-expensive state in the nation to live in. With a national average of one-in-four-renter households spending more than half of their income on housing costs and three-in-four very-low-income households spending more than half of their income on housing costs, we believe that much more can and should be done to solve our housing crisis. Limiting access is not a solution.

Another attempt to reduce the municipal housing obligation for low-to-moderate-income households are Regional Contribution Agreements, which allow municipalities to meet up to 50 percent of their Mount Laurel requirements by paying for the rehabilitation or construction of new affordable housing units in urban areas. First authorized by the Fair Housing Act, RCAs were adopted by municipalities to transfer their obligations — but were largely used to pay for rehabilitation of existing homes in cities already burdened by poverty and segregation. Before RCAs were banned in 2008 by legislation that passed with a large majority, they decreased the supply of affordable housing by up to 10,000 units and redirected $200 million in investments away from the creation of new affordable housing. It is essential that RCAs not be reauthorized now or in the future. They divert resources and attention, and exacerbate rather than solve affordable housing needs. They should be eliminated from consideration by lawmakers.

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The Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey is committed to strengthening opportunities for people of low incomes with all disabilities to live in communities of their choice. The league’s position has made it clear that if these misguided requests of local trial court judges are successful, the vast majority of people with special needs will not be welcome in the communities where they grew up, where their families live, and where they may choose to reside as adults. This is incompatible with the very definition of community. We believe that many people in our great state do not subscribe to this thinking. These concerned residents in towns dotting the state open their doors and their hearts to do their fair share. They work diligently to create diverse, integrated, and more inclusive municipal settings so that people of modest means can afford to live locally. Where are their voices represented in the current debate?

While more needs to be done, the New Jersey Department of Human Services and the Department of Community Affairs are slowly but surely creating rental subsidies for people who live with disabilities. The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency continues to require special needs set-asides in its tax credit requirements for housing development. As our state makes these important commitments, we need to break away from the notion, suggested by the league, that people with disabilities should live only in state-sponsored group homes and other congregate settings. Instead we should expand our thinking and join more progressive states that promote independent, mainstream lifestyles with supportive services for all people with disabilities. If New Jersey’s towns build the units, we can house those in need with subsidies, shared living and more efficient designs.

It’s hard to know what to say to the people who call community groups, social-service agencies, places of worship and state leaders every day in various desperate stages of housing crisis because there simply are not enough affordable homes in New Jersey. Many league members are actively building and have built beautiful, supportive housing projects that are thriving — the league should celebrate these successes by encouraging all its members to model the success and solve New Jersey’s affordable-housing crisis by increasing the supply of homes people can afford instead of resisting progress through expensive litigation and flawed housing reports.

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