By Lois Rogers | Features Editor [[In-content Ad]]
For the third time in as many years, a nationwide study of low income housing has ranked New Jersey fourth in the nation of the most expensive places to rent a two-bedroom apartment, just behind Hawaii, New York and California.
Making a bad situation even worse this year is a rental market decimated by Superstorm Sandy.
The situation is especially critical at the storm-battered shore said housing advocates who gathered March 11 in the Visitation Relief Center, Brick, to call attention to the report and make a plea that state proposals to rebuild after Sandy will create more affordable homes, especially places to rent.
They chose to release this year’s National Low Income Housing Coalition “Out of Reach” report in the poignantly chosen hub on Mantoloking Road – a former garden center transformed after Sandy struck by a group of volunteers with the help of Visitation Parish, Catholic Charities and the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Since the storm, the relief center has been helping to meet the needs of thousands of residents battered by the storm including scores of renters.
The urgency of the announcement the housing advocates were making was underscored by the atmosphere inside the center itself where house hold goods and food stuffs were being packed up for distribution to survivors and counseling sessions were discreetly underway even as the event was held.
Throughout the morning, advocates from agencies including the diocesan Office of Catholic Social Services, Catholic Charities, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and the Visitation Relief Center itself, stressed the seriousness of the situation.
Prior to Sandy, finding an affordable place to live for the many lowincome households served by Catholic Charities was difficult said Joyce Campbell, associate executive director of Catholic Charities.
“This reduction in affordable rental units as a result of Sandy, coupled with flat funding for the State Rental Assistance Program is a major concern for Catholic Charities,” Campbell said. “With fewer homes and rising costs, more of our residents are at risk of homelessness. We are facing a perfect storm of our own making.”
She said that Catholic Charities “strongly urges the governor and the legislature to include homes for low-income persons in any rebuilding plans being made.”
Staci Berger, director of policy and advocacy for the Housing and Community Development Network and Arnold Cohen, the organization’s policy coordinator, both said that finding affordable rentals is a formidable task for those living in a state burdened with high unemployment and now devastated by a natural disaster.
They noted that a high number of those – 43 percent – who applied for assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the months following the storm were renters. They offered figures from Enterprise Community Partners a housing advocacy group), showing 67 percent of those who applied earned less than $30,000 annually.
Using the widely accepted measure that not more than 30 percent of a person’s income should be spent on housing, they noted that a family would have to earn $51,672 annually to afford a two bedroom rental in New Jersey where the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for such a unit is $1,292 a month.
“… We need better housing policies that create more homes people can afford. We need a greater supply and variety of choices for New Jerseyans,” Berger said.
Cohen called the present situation “very critical” saying at this point it affects untold numbers of people displaced by the storm who have not been able to find places to live. “The problem we have here is supply and demand.”
A real problem right now is the fact that survivors don’t have the means to “stay or go” from the beleaguered shoreline, said Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, the executive director of the diocesan department of Catholic Social Services.
Sister Joanne said there are growing concerns about those with low incomes who, months later, are still living in temporary housing, often bunking in with relatives or friends. Their plight might not be “so visible” to those who are unaffected by the situation, “but it is very important.
Christie Winters led the group of volunteers that coalesced from the very beginning around Visitation Parish in the stricken Mantoloking Road area of Brick. According to the parish website, a recent study indicated that this zip code area – 08723 – sustained 28 percent of the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
“This is where we have experienced (the results of Sandy) from day one,” said Winters, project director for the relief center. During her presentation, Winters said it was urgent for the state to recognize the housing needs and look at the problem as a whole.
After the presentation ended, Sister Joanne said it is vital to deal with the scarcity of affordable housing. Emergency funds from charities such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Charities can help householders cover some of the costs, such as the first month’s rent and securities.
But high rents can make it impossible to remain.