The New Jersey Supportive Housing Association is a leading crusader in the Garden State for more and better supportive housing especially for those with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. Its energetic, impassioned, and very effective executive director is Ms. Gail Levinson. Gail recently took up her cyber pen to editorialize in NJ Spotlight about the affordable housing crisis in New Jersey, challenging among others the New Jersey League of Municipalities to do the right thing, namely, permit more affordable and supportive housing stock to be built in New Jersey’s towns.
Gail wrote: “Much more can and should be done to solve our housing crisis; limiting access is not a solution. 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?”
Psychodyssey’s Tom Pyle wrote a response to Ms. Levinson’s op-ed and one of the comments made about it. Psychodyssey reprints the response it its entirety here:
Bravo, Gail Levinson for a critical op-ed on a critical subject. So many things to talk about! Hear the wail of one lowly citizen seeking and not yet finding affordable housing for his disabled loved one!…
Indeed ZONING is a critical obstacle. In Princeton, where I live, the entire zoning plan completely skews to large and expensive single family housing. There is little possibility currently to intensify land use sensibly by permitting denser zoning, or to enable innovations possible from the “small house movement”, or to permit families to build on their own properties stand-alone supplemental housing for their disabled loved ones.
Another impediment in many towns is ENVIRONMENTAL FUNDAMENTALISM which seems unfortunately, if surely unintentionally, to put plants before people. Recently in Princeton, the Town Council voted to take 22 developable acres off the market as another “open space” purchase, despite the Town already having met and exceeded its master plan for open space, and also despite the Town not properly tending to the maintenance and care of the open space it already has. The acquired land was slated to be developed as a 55+ community. We need better balance in our priorities. Housing first always!
A third impediment is INORDINATE MUNICIPAL SPENDING which shrinks options for more affordable housing. Despite local candidates’ perennial pledges to promote “affordability”, many municipal leaders keep busting through their budgets. Princeton’s aforementioned purchase of “open space” was voted despite a yawning $6mm gap in the Town’s capital budget that no one knows how will be closed. Rarely do municipal leaders seem to reduce spending, streamline services, and avoid duplication. While Mercer County has a perfectly suitable Board of Social Services in Trenton tending to the county’s disadvantaged, Princeton has its own human services department doing the same thing. This is expensive duplication of salaries for such municipal staff without the benefits of larger county-wide economies of scale.
A fourth impediment is RECKLESS STATE SPENDING. New Jersey’s state budget is in a world of hurt. How bad is our state’s budget? The credit rating agencies rank New Jersey 49th out of 50th. Decades of bad spending decisions by Trenton’s politicians in the pockets of special interests now leave no reserves or flexibility for our critical problems. We are left debating constitutional amendments to pay for politically determined pensions for the powerful while HMFA’s Special Needs Trust Fund, so needed to catalyze more affordable housing creation, remains depleted. Meanwhile, New Jerseyans remain the highest taxed citizens in the country, which is leading many to migrate. (If you don’t believe this, ask any New Jersey financial advisor.)
A fifth impediment is subtle but continuing ECONOMIC DISCRIMINATION. Despite many fine achievements, still many rich towns don’t want more poor people, thinking they have “done enough”. According to the Mercer County Office of Housing and Community Development (2010) and others, current affordable housing stock skews away from those who most need it towards those who need it less. As true around the State, Princeton’s stock for the upper end of the affordability class, i.e., middle income, is in surplus. At the very low, extremely low, and deeply low ends of the cohort, there is a deficit. Consider the plight of a disabled citizen with a permanent disability on SSI/SSD, receiving $785 per month or less than $10,000 p.a. As reported by SHA and other NJ housing advocates, some 120,000 New Jerseyans are at this lowest rung, but only 40,000 housing stock slots are available to them at their income levels. The parameters of the “affordable” housing programs are still too exclusionary, and thus discriminatory.
A sixth impediment is an excessive impulse of some municipal leaders toward SOCIAL ENGINEERING. In rich towns especially, there are sentiments in some quarters that the town “do something” for the middle class. Indeed the plight of the middle class is serious. They have lost ground in the last two decades. But they still have options and mobility as the disabled do not. Yet some housing policy makers in Princeton are suggesting that the Town subsidize middle class residents seeking affordable housing in that segment of stock already in surplus, for people up to 250% of the federal poverty level. Meanwhile, the extremely low and deeply low disabled citizenry must scramble, if their disabilities don’t preclude, for the woefully insufficient stock at their level. Such well-meaning but misguided elite sentiment sometimes seems to want to subsidize the “little” people who already have while denying the littlest people who still have not.
So much need. So far to go. Affordable housing for New Jersey’s disabled—a truly vexatious challenge. It is our state’s premier social justice issue at this time. I salute Gail Levinson and her excellent SHA team for keeping the spotlight squarely on this very difficult problem. She needs and deserves all our support.