A new national report estimates a shortage of about 7 million affordable and available rental homes for Americans living at or below the poverty level.

Such a gap, as explained by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, also exists in New Jersey, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

"I think what we've seen is, this crisis actually makes worse some of those conditions that were in place pre-COVID," Arnold Cohen, senior policy advisor for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said.

The Network wants Gov. Phil Murphy to resist opening up some of the funds usually devoted to dealing with this disparity to higher-income groups, as has been suggested in the budget as a way to better balance pandemic recovery.

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Every time a home is bought or sold, Cohen said, a portion of the realty transfer fee goes to fund affordable housing, but the notion that law could be changed has been discussed.

"New Jersey has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, has money that is dedicated to addressing the housing needs, and that money needs to be used for people who are most at need," Cohen said.

The dearth of affordable housing is a persistent crisis for very low-income New Jersey residents, many of whom work in the hospitality industry, a field which has taken one of the biggest hits from the virus.

Not only that, but these people are disproportionately on the front lines against COVID; it's impossible in some cases for them to work from home.

Those who are maintaining homes are paying through the nose, according to Cohen.

Right now in New Jersey, among households earning less than $35,000 a year, more than 70% are devoting more than half of that income just to keep a roof overhead.

"As we know, that's unsustainable, and a number of them are at risk of homelessness because of the pandemic," Cohen said.

Racial and other societal factors are at play here. Cohen said that of the families most at risk in this housing shortage, 21% are Black, 19% are Hispanic, and nearly 40% overall are senior citizens.

Yet another elephant remains in the room as the pandemic crawls to a close, he said, and it provides a grim glimpse into the future once the rest of the state gets back to normal.

"There is a crisis upcoming once the Governor's moratorium on evictions ends, and hopefully we'll get that response and help from the federal government, that's needed to come up with those big dollars," Cohen said.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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