Newark Credit: Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

Renter Empowerment and Neighborhood Tools (RENT) for Health Equity offers a guide to increasing the opportunity for everyone in New Jersey to live their healthiest life in a safe, affordable residence of their choosing. To help inform efforts to support the well-being of lower-income New Jersey renters, the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ (HCDNNJ), Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), and directly-affected renters themselves, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, collaborated with Regional Plan Association to highlight inequality and affordability challenges for renters in Atlantic City, Camden, New Brunswick, Newark, Paterson, Perth Amboy and Trenton.

The problems are greatest for those whose income is the lowest.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that New Jersey has a shortage of over 200,000 homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters — households in the lowest 30% of the area’s median income (or under about $32,000 a year), compared to nearly 100% availability for those at the top income level. There are only 31 homes available and affordable for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. This group is highly diverse: Over a third are seniors, over a third work, and 15% are disabled.

Many renters at this income level are so severely cost burdened that they spend more than half their income on rent, making them more likely to sacrifice such other necessities as healthy food and healthcare and to experience evictions and other unstable housing situations. The rising cost of housing itself is a health issue: Cost burdens and fears of eviction or displacement due to development pressure contribute to physical and mental health challenges and put many households in a position of constant stress.

Racist policies and practices contribute to this problem. As the research points out, “Discriminatory practices of the past, such as redlining, have generational impacts on where people live that can been seen today. In New Jersey the impact of these kinds of policies reduced opportunities for homeownership for Black and Brown New Jerseyans which, in turn, has led to stark differences in wealth accumulation. The NJ Institute for Social Justice estimates the median wealth for white households in NJ to be $322,500 compared to $17,700 for Black households and $26,100 for Latinx households. This wealth disparity impacts where people can live and further limits the communities that low-income households have access to.”

Housing profiles of each municipality highlight key indicators and comparisons to provide insights, especially on housing characteristics and what residents can afford to pay. The information is presented as a resource for community advocates and local, county and state government officials to help understand housing inequality around the state and support policy decisions to ensure healthy homes and well-being for vulnerable low-income renters.

“We’re proud that New Jersey has been home to groundbreaking policies and historic investments that protected renters throughout the pandemic,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ. “Housing stability is essential to improved health for our state’s residents and New Jersey’s economic well-being, so it’s crucial to continue on that path. We cannot remain silent in the face of obstruction to affordable homes, resistance steeped in and sustained by structural and institutional racism. As we approach observance of Dr. King’s birthday, we urge our elected leaders to help realize his dream of the beloved community. This shows how much we need to do to ‘HouseNJ,’ and to break down barriers held up by systemic racism.”

“These reports confirm the lived experience of renters in Ironbound, Newark, and communities like ours,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of organizing & advocacy, Ironbound Community Corporation. “Tenants face horrid conditions and displacement every day. We need to ensure that government, whether local, state, or federal, is listening to tenants directly and passing policies that meet their needs.”

“RPA has long been an advocate for housing affordability in New Jersey and we are proud to be a partner in this effort,” said Zoe Baldwin, New Jersey director for Regional Plan Association. “Access to safe, stable, and affordable housing has become a crisis in our state, especially for renters. Our research highlights this growing inequity and emphasizes the dire need for policy change to ensure renters across New Jersey have access to healthy and attainable homes.”

While New Jersey provides some relief due to the eviction moratorium and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), there is not enough funding to help all of the state’s eligible tenants nor has it reached all vulnerable groups dealing with housing insecurity. And the Housing Choice program, which provides renters with federal housing assistance, is not guaranteed. Only one out of four families eligible for a Section 8 voucher actually get one. With a housing crisis and inflation increasing the cost of living, the following action is needed:

•Expand transparency and accountability for institutional investor ownership by mandating the listing of the actual name, address, and contact information, so tenants and public entities have a person to go to and get issues abated

•Develop a statewide habitability and code enforcement hotline with the NJ Department of Community Affairs and the Attorney General’s office for tenants

•Invest $975 million in housing to provide security and stability for vulnerable households

•Create a more streamlined application process for getting families into affordable homes, coupled with robust housing assistance programs

•Promote community-based wealth and reducing New Jersey’s worst-in-the-nation racial wealth gap — estimated at more than $300,000

•Eliminate credit score standards for tenants, especially those eligible for rental assistance, and end racial discrimination in home appraisals

•Develop a statewide habitability and code enforcement hotline with the state Department of Community Affairs and the Attorney General’s office for tenants

These steps need to be part of a multi-pronged approach to fund more affordable housing while promoting community-based wealth building. And racial discrimination, in all its forms, must be stopped. By working comprehensively to address these challenges, protect tenants, and create new housing, New Jersey can support more integrated communities where everyone has a place to call home and thrive.

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