Op-Ed: New Jersey Can’t Solve Housing Crisis Alone, It Needs Help from Congress

Diane Yentel, Staci Berger | November 21, 2019 | Opinion
Nearly three-quarters of renters spend more than half of their income on housing costs
Diane Yentel, left, and Staci Berger

Many of us are already preparing for a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. We’re shopping for food, planning decorations, and inviting friends and family to be together. While many of us will enjoy the holiday at home, far too many of our neighbors will not.

In New Jersey, one of the richest states in the nation, 85% of renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent and related costs; nearly three-quarters of renters spend over half of their income on housing costs.

Since 1960, rents have risen 61% while incomes have only grown by 5%. Just to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, a household would need to earn $28.86 an hour. In comparison, the average New Jersey renter earns $18.68 an hour. Minimum wage, while set to rise steadily for the next few years, will soon be $11 an hour. Superstorm Sandy and the Great Recession contributed to our foreclosure crisis, and the administration of Gov. Chris Christie diverted nearly all the resources intended to address housing insecurity in the Garden State. We’ve also had a decrease in funding for housing production since 1978 when the federal government invested nearly three times more than what is budgeted today.

Our housing affordability crisis impacts us all. Educators know that students are more likely to succeed when they return to a stable, affordable home at the end of the day. Health care experts and practitioners see strong links between patients’ poor health and the perpetual anxiety created by the stress of unaffordable and unstable housing. Civil rights advocates understand that racial and economic disparities are exacerbated by residential segregation and discrimination. Community leaders know that working families can climb up the income ladder and build wealth when rent no longer eats up most of their hard-earned paychecks. Housing is essential to growing our economy, increasing safety, improving food security, meeting veterans’ needs, ending homelessness, and more.

A monthly battle

New Jersey’s and our entire nation’s housing affordability crisis has reached historic heights and is impacting every community — urban, rural, and suburban. Our neighbors who earn the least are paying the most of their income for housing, driving them into poverty. Putting food on the table, paying the bills, and keeping a roof over their head is a monthly battle. It doesn’t have to be this way.

National and state organizations like ours have joined together to win a major, long-overdue federal response to set policy priorities, expand resources, and incentivize and support coordinated efforts at the state and local levels. Opportunity Starts at Home is an unprecedented multi-sector campaign to secure the resources we need to make sure everyone has a safe, affordable place to call home.

Specifically, to fulfill our short-term policy agenda, we are asking members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation to:

  • Expand the National Housing Trust Fund to at least $3.5 billion annually, through comprehensive housing finance reform legislation of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other government sponsored entities;
  • Create an “Emergency Assistance Fund” to provide short-term financial assistance and stability services to help vulnerable households overcome an economic shock that threatens their housing stability;
  • Create 500,000 new “Opportunity Vouchers” to enable low-income families move into choice communities with greater opportunities.
  • Establish a bipartisan Affordable Housing Task Force to deeply study the country’s housing affordability challenges in a bipartisan way and to jointly articulate robust solutions.

With this year’s full restoration of the New Jersey Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which we expect to begin investing in neighborhoods soon, we have begun to turn the page of the decade of disinvestment in affordable homes here. Now it is time for our leaders in Washington, D.C. to support creating the homes we need. New Jersey cannot solve the housing crisis alone; our federal government must do better by creating opportunities so all our neighbors and communities can thrive.

This holiday season, we are grateful not only for our families and friends, but also for the opportunity to work together to end America’s housing crisis. Join us by visiting Opportunity Starts at Home.