Can the poor afford to live at the Shore anymore?
SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (AP) -- It was a Superstorm Sandy double-whammy.
About 15,600 rental units in New Jersey sustained severe damage during the hurricane, forcing thousands of renters out of their homes. These newly homeless tenants quickly learned that they were priced out of the majority of available rental homes that survived the storm.
A new $700 million Sandy federal aid program designed to increase affording housing was supposed to help address that. But that's not what's happening in Monmouth and Ocean counties, where the program is being used to build more senior housing -- leaving many displaced families still scrambling for an affordable place to live.
"It's insufficient," Tony Marchetta, executive director of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, told the Asbury Park Press (http://on.app.com/1ICF0XE ). The agency is directing the Fund for Restoration of Multifamily Housing. "We need to get more family housing."
The numbers are telling: Of the 468 affordable apartments that have been approved for construction in Ocean County -- where Sandy's floodwaters wrought the most damage -- only 72 will be available to tenants who aren't at least 55 years old. In Monmouth County, of the 744 units approved, 445 are for seniors, 299 for families.
As a result, the state is taking the extraordinary step of setting aside one quarter -- $50 million -- of the third and final allocation into the multifamily housing fund to be used exclusively for affordable family housing projects in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
If these projects continue to fail to materialize here on the Shore that $50 million will probably be spent elsewhere, Marchetta said.
"I would suggest that we be able to spread out beyond those two counties," he said. "Old Bridge, Sayreville, there are places that were seriously damaged by Sandy outside of (Monmouth and Ocean)."
Dionna Opperlee, 37, and her husband are now paying $450 more per month -- an unsustainable chunk of their budget, she admits -- so they can remain close to his full-time job at a Seaside Park motel and her seasonal work for a local grocer.
"There's nothing else out there," she said.
To help boost affordable housing after Sandy, the federal government set aside $700 million to provide low-interest loans to developers of large multi-family apartment buildings. More than 3,700 affordable housing apartments are in the works statewide thanks to the program -- with 2,271 designed for families, and 1,483 set aside for seniors.
Affordable housing complexes have a reputation -- unearned, proponents say -- as a source of crime and drug use. Development of these projects has been fought off by some Shore communities that also claim these homes lead to an additional tax burden.
Of the eight counties participating in the program, only Monmouth, Ocean and Essex (165 families, 225 seniors) are building more senior projects than family housing. Cape May is split, 160 each.
Projects, especially in Aberdeen, have given Monmouth County some balance between the age-restricted and family housing created through the Sandy program, but the county still has a sharper disparity than elsewhere in the state.
For instance, Atlantic County has commitments for three times as many family units as Monmouth County in the Sandy-aid development pipeline. One planned complex in Jersey City by itself bests the total pledged for Monmouth County.
Tina Dunn was paying $950 a month for her home in Highlands before the storm. The best she and her adult daughter could find after the hurricane -- she was jockeying not only with renters for apartments but also displaced homeowners -- was a $1,500 per month apartment in Freehold, she said.
Dunn's had to steadily divest what little she was able to keep following Sandy just to pay that difference in rent. She has a job interview this week, but she's finding it difficult to stay positive.
"It's hard to keep looking for employment, I just sold my car," said Dunn, 51. "The only clothes I have are the clothes my friend gave me. How am I supposed to have a job looking like this?"
Before the storm, it was difficult enough for lower-income households to find a home to rent in Ocean County, said Mike McNeil, executive director of Solutions to End Poverty Soon, which connects potential tenants with landlords.
"When Sandy came along, good Lord, that really created a problem," he said.
This is everybody's problem because the financial effects of an affordable housing shortage can be felt throughout the entire renter population, said Donna Blaze, CEO of the Affordable Housing Alliance. It also makes services more expensive, she said.
"We all play a role in our quality of life," Blaze said. "Whether it's access to quality teachers or people who volunteer for the fire department or someone to babysit your child, we all have a role here and not every role generates the substantial income that housing purchases require in (Monmouth County)."
The Walters Group, a Barnegat-based developer, intends to apply for that $50 million pot of Sandy money with an existing project that has already met a wall of opposition in Berkeley, according to Joseph Del Duca, a principal in the real estate group.
Berkeley approved a zoning change for the Berkeley Family Apartments, a proposed 88-unit complex off of Route 9, but leadership there backed off after residents started voicing opposition.
During a planning board meeting in December, opponents of the project said the apartments would create a burden on local schools and lead to an increase in not only traffic but also crime and illicit drug use.
Berkeley never took a vote on a resolution that a developer needs to get the Sandy aid, prompting the Walters Group to sue. The town won, but the Walters Group has appealed. Berkeley Mayor Carmen Amato could not be reached for comment.
Adam Gordon, a staff attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center, said he was aware of at least one other Ocean County project that was waylaid by a town, but the general mood may stop others from even getting that far.
"I do think that many developers probably have not proceeded with homes for families because they are getting signals from municipalities that they will say no," he said.
Del Duca said they don't get involved where they're not wanted, but that they spent $400,000 so far on this project because they believed they had the town's blessing.
"We're going to keep fighting," he said.
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