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Op-Ed: Responding to League of Municipalities on Affordable-Housing Mandate

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| October 6, 2015

Finding places to live for the poorest citizens, and for those with special needs, is essential to building a diverse community

gail levinson
Gail Levinson

The League of Municipalities released two commissioned reports that serve to advise judges, developers, and other housing experts on its position relative to the Mount Laurel doctrine and the establishment of formulas for the production of low- and moderate-income housing as per the Mount Laurel doctrine and the New Jersey Fair Housing Act.

Of concern to the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey (SHA) is the reports’ recommendation that people living on extremely low incomes, less than 20 percent of area median income, be excluded from state housing-policy requirements because their incomes are too low to afford an affordable rent. So where will they live?

We know that people living in poverty without proper housing overuse local municipal services and become dependent on emergency rooms and other high-cost centers for lack of adequate shelter and support services. Therefore, towns and cities that create housing affordable for these individuals not only save lives, but also save dollars.

Supportive housing is a philosophy and model of community housing for people with disabilities and other special needs that embraces the notion that all people regardless of income or disability have a right to live in communities of their choice and in mainstream housing. We are no longer an industry of mostly congregate housing (group homes) and have become very much a part of the affordable-housing market. We require policy that incentivizes towns and cities to house their most vulnerable, not ones that create opportunities to exclude them.

The Mount Laurel Doctrine, in our view, is there to protect people in housing, including those at the lowest end of the income ladder. It is precisely because towns and cities are creating affordable-housing units, that we are able to work with and encourage federal, state, and local officials, as well as developers, to further subsidize some of these units offering permanent housing for special needs populations with extremely low incomes.

While some people with disabilities live on incomes above 20 percent and 30 percent median, over 120,000 adults live on Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits of under $800 monthly and are eager to find affordable units in towns and cities throughout the state. Over 40,000 of these individuals already live in affordable units through federal and state housing assistance, leaving the majority in substandard housing, at home with aging parents, or homeless. Rental subsidies, shared housing, and part-time employment are among the ways in which people of very low income can begin to access housing that is affordable to them. New Jersey has additionally created incentives for towns to house people of low income through its Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program and the granting of bonuses through Mount Laurel, to towns that build housing units occupied by individuals with special needs. We applaud these policies and advocate that nothing stand in the way of housing the neediest among us.

“We must always find ways in which to serve people of low income with disabilities in our towns and cities. These are our adult children, our brothers and sisters and our neighbors who help to make our communities diverse, inclusive, and vital,” said Cherry Oakley, president of the SHA board of trustees.

Over the past decade, many of SHA’s members, for-profit and not-for-profit housing developers, have worked side by side with urban and suburban communities in the development of housing complexes that provide units of housing for people with disabilities so that they can live close to family, friends, and employers. Towns that have this obligation will continue to work to provide housing for individuals and families of very low income by adapting existing settings and building more efficient designs.

The League’s reports fail to recognize the many towns and cities that do not use income to exclude people, whose mayors believe that providing housing for the neediest builds strong and vibrant communities. SHA calls on the League to modify its position and include the poorest among us.

Gail Levinson is executive director of the Supportive Housing Association of NJ (SHA), a nonprofit statewide membership organization that advocates for a strong supportive housing industry in New Jersey.

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Gail Levinson is the Executive Director of SHA. Before becoming director of SHA, Gail directed the nonprofit organization, Arts Unbound, which provides skills building and earnings opportunities in the visual arts for students and emerging artists with disabilities in NJ. Gail has worked in the disability community her entire professional career serving as Director of Policy and Legislation for the Mental Health Association in NJ, Director of Advocacy for the Community Health Law Project, Liaison to the AIDS Community at the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann La Roche, and Team Leader for the NJ Children's Initiative. She holds a Masters Degree in Psychology. Her interests and goals have always gravitated toward improving community access and opportunities for people living with special needs.

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