People with disabilities shouldn't have to leave town because they can't afford a home
By Diane Riley
In January, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a, landmark decision affirming that municipalities must meet the need for housing that accrued during a 16-year gap period when New Jersey's fair housing laws weren't being enforced properly.
This unanimous ruling was a giant step forward for tens of thousands of individuals and families who have been waiting years to find homes they could afford. It means that towns all over New Jersey must now move forward and identify ways to encourage and support the building and rehabilitation of homes for people with limited financial means. And because of this ruling, more homes will surely be built in the years to come to address our state's ongoing housing affordability crisis.
More than 100 municipalities have already reached agreements with advocates and developers establishing obligations of more than 32,000 homes.
Yet in a trial that is currently underway in Mercer County, five towns with a higher cost of living - Princeton, West Windsor, East Windsor, Hopewell and Lawrence - are arguing to artificially lower their affordable housing numbers. Their arguments assert that people with extremely low incomes, families who make less than 20 percent of the area median income, should not be counted in the housing methodology at all because they will never be able to afford living in these towns even if the towns properly zone for additional homes.
Deeply concerning to the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey (SHA) is the fact that this would also eliminate a majority of people living with disabilities from the equation as well. Many people with intellectual and physical disabilities fall into this category, relying on federal supplemental security income (SSI), on average $800 a month, to live. Should this argument prevail, the effects would be devastating and a giant step backward for people living with special needs.
New Jersey has made great strides in the last decade by deinstitutionalizing care and providing more opportunities in the form of vouchers and supports to enable people with disabilities to live closer to their loved ones. But there remains an acute shortage of affordable housing options. To address this shortage, advocates have been working to ensure that municipal housing settlements prioritize building homes for people with very low incomes. Both for-profit and nonprofit developers have stepped up, partnering with towns to build and rehab homes that serve these communities. In short, when the need is properly and fairly accounted for, towns and community partners are incentivized to find solutions.
Reducing the number of future affordable homes created by excluding a whole class of people ensures less affordable homes will be built and will exacerbate New Jersey's current supportive housing shortage. People with special needs will not be able to find the homes and supports they need to live full and productive lives. This is not a new argument but one that goes back to the heart of the Mount Laurel doctrine itself. The notion that if you can't afford to live in a town, you shouldn't was found to be discriminatory then and is still today.
People with special needs choose communities for many common reasons: access to friends, families, support systems, medical facilities, places of worship and educational and work opportunities.
The philosophy of supportive housing for people with special needs is a community model that empowers all people -regardless of income and disability - by protecting their right to live in communities of their choice.
SHA believes that this not only works for each individual but also makes our communities stronger, more diverse, and more vital. Every community is challenged to do its part, and many are working diligently to do so.
It's time to put the court battles behind us and get on with the business of building the homes that people so desperately need.
Diane Riley is executive director of Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey.