The proposal last week of rules meant to restart the construction of affordable housing in New Jersey are sorely needed in a state where three of every five renters can't easily afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Earlier this spring, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLHIC) released its annual Out of Reach report for 2014, which showed that a two-bedroom apartment is unaffordable to 59 percent of renters in the state. In order for housing to be considered affordable, a person should not spend more than 30 percent of income on rent and utilities.
Fair-market rent for a two-bedroom unit in New Jersey is about $1,300, making it the fourth most expensive state in the nation, behind Hawaii, California, and Maryland.
To be able to afford that without paying more than 30 percent on housing costs, a person would need to earn almost $25 an hour. The state's 1.1 million renter households -- about a third of all households in New Jersey -- make $16.34 an hour. For that wage, an apartment is affordable at $850 a month. To afford a two-bedroom unit at $1,300, the typical renter would need to work one-and-a-half full-time jobs.
"In order for our economy to rebound and our residents to recover, we need more places people can afford to rent," said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, in announcing the data last March. "The state of New Jersey unfortunately is not doing enough to help renters to make their homes more affordable."
Things are much worse for minimum-wage earners. Although voters approved an increase in the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour, it takes three full-time minimum-wage salaries to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey.
Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of NLIHC, said an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is necessary, but that still would not be enough to help all those in need.
"Increasing the stock of affordable housing is a critical part to addressing the extreme shortage of affordable housing in America," she said.
Last week, the NJ Council on Affordable Housing -- under a state Supreme Court order -- proposed new rules to provide about 53,000 additional affordable units statewide and improve 63,000 existing units. The rules are 15 years late, and advocates with the Fair Share Housing Center, which had sued New Jersey over the rules, say they don't go far enough to meet the need in the state.
The most expensive counties for a two-bedroom unit are Hunterdon, Somerset, and Middlesex, where fair-market rent is an estimated $1,458 a month, according to the NLIHC report. The counties where renter income and the cost of housing are farthest apart are Passaic and Salem, where more than 70 percent of renters are unable to afford a two-bedroom unit without paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities.
Superstorm Sandy made the housing crisis worse and renters have still not recovered, Berger said.
"New Jersey must do better in the next round of Sandy funding to help renters affected by the storm and increase the supply of rental homes by fully funding state rental assistance and related programs," she said, blasting a proposal in Gov. Chris Christie's budget to cut state rental assistance by $2.5 million. "We need to invest more, not less, to solve the rental housing crisis."