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Housing advocates are urging Congress to restore housing vouchers to their pre-sequestration levels to reduce waiting lists and help more New Jerseyans afford a decent place to live.
The automatic federal budget cuts that took effect in 2013 led to a loss of almost 1,600 Housing Choice Vouchers in the state, according to Kate Kelly of Monarch Housing Associates. These vouchers are the primary form of federal housing assistance, allowing low-income families, seniors and others to pay for housing that they find in the private market. More than three-quarters of the state's 79 public housing authorities lost vouchers due to sequestration.
"Lack of affordable housing, rising rents and falling incomes have made it more and more difficult for many New Jerseyans, including working families with children, seniors and veterans, to keep a roof over their heads," she said. "This has been exacerbated by cuts to the federal budget that have reduced the number of Housing Choice Vouchers available to local communities in New Jersey, causing long waiting lists for housing assistance to grow even longer."
The vouchers are critical to keeping New Jersey families in decent homes. In the second quarter of this year, 64,674 families used vouchers for their housing. That was lower than the high of 65,362 at the end of 2013. Nationally, more than 100,000 vouchers were lost due to the automatic sequestration cuts.
Michael Dunlop was able to move into an apartment in Blackwood in Camden County last September after getting a voucher and says it has helped improve his health -- he suffers from sarcoidosis -- and his outlook.
"I had been homeless off and on since 2008," said Dunlop, who had spent time in a hotel and in an apartment he could barely afford on his monthly welfare check over the last six years. "This takes away all the headaches. I appreciate the voucher. I'm focusing on connecting all the dots and making this apartment home."
Valarie Fox, who was also homeless at one time, only got a voucher in her retirement.
"I knew for me to be able to stop working I would have to have some help with housing," said Fox, who has schizophrenia that she said is well-controlled by medication. "Without a voucher, there is no way I would be able to retire ... In the early '80s I was homeless. Getting permanent housing made me feel very much stronger mentally. It gave me dignity."
The budget deal unveiled by Congress earlier this week includes $35.6 billion for U.S. Housing and Urban Development programs, about $90 million less than the 2014 fiscal year.
"The good news is that finalizing FY15 funding levels will bring certainty to housing assistance providers across the country," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "The bad news is that the funding levels for HUD programs do not provide the resources needed to even maintain the current level of service, let alone make progress on meeting the nation’s affordable housing needs ... Low-income Americans who need affordable and decent homes will suffer through another year of funding constraints."
She called on Congress to stop expected sequester cuts in the 2016 fiscal year "and restore housing programs to healthy funding levels."
"If funding is not restored, thousands more will lose assistance in years to come, deepening homelessness and hardship," said Kelly.
Not surprisingly, the state's largest city -- Newark -- had the largest voucher program. With one of the lowest median household incomes in the state, Newark had nearly 5,000 families using vouchers for housing. The state Department of Community Affairs got the most vouchers, to help almost 21,000 families across the state.