A fledgling initiative to encourage New Jersey hospitals to build affordable housing in their neighborhoods is not only likely to result in the construction of more homes than initially anticipated, but it is also expanding to provide funds to improve the neighborhoods themselves.
Charles Richman, executive director of the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, told more than 150 housing and community advocates attending a summit in Trenton on Thursday that he expects at least six hospital-housing partnerships to be underway by this time next year.
He also unveiled plans for a second initiative that would have the HMFA work with nonprofits to determine the needs of the neighborhoods where the homes are built and then provide funds to help fill those needs.
“We need to start thinking about broader than just this development,” Richman said of the Hospital Housing Partnership Program. “We have to start thinking about the neighborhoods and what’s happening around it. And so one of our plans now is to … put together a pot of money where we can work particularly with nonprofits in the neighborhoods around these hospital initiatives to do a neighborhood program. We’d like to spend some time really understanding what the neighborhood needs.”
He didn’t estimate how much the agency might spend to improve neighborhoods, saying it will depend on the needs and working with local nonprofits to “build out a realistic budget based upon what can be accomplished and how you build into it.”
More partnerships, more money
But the amount spent on the hospital-housing initiatives is likely to be double the $12 million Richman initially announced at last year’s Healthy Communities and Homes Summit, when he expected the state to fund three or four such partnerships. Now he thinks that there will be as many as eight.
Hospitals are matching funds they get from the HMFA dollar-for-dollar, so the total investment in these projects could reach or exceed $48 million.
“I’m really satisfied that we will have a solid six underway certainly before I come back next year and tell you where we are and maybe more than that,” Richman said.
The first of those projects is under way in Paterson, where St. Joseph’s University Medical Center and the HMFA have joined forces to fund a 70-unit development on a vacant lot about 300 yards from the hospital.
The building will include one- to three-bedroom apartments earmarked for those who frequent the hospital’s emergency department, including some with special needs. Low-income residents who move into the building will be eligible for housing vouchers to subsidize their rent. The first floor will serve as a healthcare hub. This first collaborative effort is expected to be completed in 2021.
Richman said three other partnerships are in various stages of approval, with the hospitals involved in two of those having already chosen developers. He hopes they will serve as models not just in New Jersey, but for the nation.
Thursday’s summit, hosted by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, gave members of the healthcare and community-development sectors an opportunity to network and hear from state officials, health experts and policy advocates on examples of successful partnerships and opportunities. It is the network’s fourth summit on the topic.
‘Holistic approach’ to healthcare
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, nonprofit hospitals are required to use so-called Community Health Needs Assessments to demonstrate support for health outcomes. In New Jersey and other states, these assessments are being used to address housing needs, driving hospital investments and health resources to neighborhoods.
“The Affordable Care Act aims to improve health and reduce costs by taking a holistic approach,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the network. “Our members are collaborating with local hospitals to provide residents with homes that are affordable and free of dangers like lead and mold. These collaborations are creating community gardens, free health screenings, educational programs, and so much more to meet the needs of the communities these two sectors serve.”
Berger was excited about Richman’s news that more money would be available both to create more affordable housing and to improve neighborhoods.
“That’s really quite an incredible announcement,” she said, thanking Richman and his staff for their efforts on the entire issue and for being willing to “look under your couch cushions and do whatever you need to do to make this work.”
Reaching out to the community
Richman said branching out and doing more to improve the neighborhoods where the housing will be built is important “to not let anyone in the community feel that they’ve been left behind or haven’t been considered.”
He said the projects will be unique, tailored to each neighborhood, and will be selected by talking with residents and with the help of local nonprofits that know what’s needed in the area.
Richman cited as an example a neighborhood redevelopment effort he was involved with many years ago in which he and others would ring the doorbells of residents and try to explain their plans. At one home, a woman told him, “Sonny, I only care about the rats running down the street,” Richman recalled. “That has not been lost on me over the years.”
But Richman cautioned against viewing this work as a cure-all or one with an unlimited pot of money available.
“I hate to over-promise because that only leads to more distrust in the communities,” he said. “Part of it is finding the money, but I know we’re committed to figuring out how to make funds available to this.”
Plans for the coming year
The next effort the HMFA is looking to tackle over the next year, according to Richman, is to help bring additional healthcare services — for example, urgent-care facilities or pharmacies — to urban areas where the agency has helped finance residential construction and the first floor is vacant.
“One of the things we’ve determined we can do is we could pay for the fit-ups on those first floors for healthcare-related activities,” he said, meaning the agency is considering ways to pay to retrofit now vacant spaces to accommodate the needs of healthcare facilities. “And so we haven’t yet figured out how to engage the healthcare community to take advantage of that. But here’s an area I would really love to spend money to do the fit-ups because that is a barrier.”
Richman said that a lack of funding is often the only barrier to putting such facilities in these buildings and said the agency might go even further and design new developments to include health services as they are built and make it even more attractive to bring in services.
“If we’re really lucky,” he said, “particularly in our new developments, we can fashion it so that the first floors can be rented out at no rent, no cost to a healthcare-related activity so that barrier can be taken down.”