It starts with the concept of “them.”
As in “we don’t want them here.”
They could have different colored skin. Or walk funny, talk differently, or maybe not talk at all. They might be in a wheelchair. They might be old, or have too many kids, or wear out of fashion clothes or drive the wrong car.
But we don’t want them in our neighborhood.
It’s an argument as old as time.
But in simpler terms, as a measure of policy, it is discriminatory and unconstitutional to create an impediment that deliberately excludes one group of people from living in a place they might otherwise choose to live.
In New Jersey, as in other states, court cases banned the practice of exclusionary zoning, which created distinct classes of residents , and at the same time created government bureaucracies that made a complete hash of the laws and created more opportunities for bad zoning than existed before the lawsuits.
That’s part of the reason, according to a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, based on a new American Community Survey, that there is a persistent shortage of affordable housing for lower income Americans.
The report said, in 2010, there were approximately 40 million renter households in the United States. One in four, 9.8 million, had incomes that can be classified as extremely low using HUD categories.
This is an increase of almost 200,000 such households between 2009 and 2010. However, the supply of rental units affordable to extremely low income households, which was already woefully inadequate to meet this need, decreased from 2009 to 2010 by over 200,000 units, the report said.
In 2010, there were 5.5 million rental units affordable to these 9.8 million extremely low income renters, producing an absolute deficit of 4.3 million affordable units. This is an increase in the shortage of 400,000 such units, which stood at 3.9 million in 2009.
Another way of describing the gap is that for every 100 extremely low income renters in 2010, there were only 56 units they could potentially
live in without spending more than 30 percent of their income on
housing and utility costs . The comparable number in
2009 was 59 units.
But it’s not just low income families who struggle with housing. In Morris County, NJ, the fourth or fifth richest place in the world, nearly 28 percent of households struggle with housing costs. They were highlighted in a 2008 United Way report that showed in cold hard facts how hard it is to be in the bottom of the middle class or below.
Fortunately in 2004, a group of Morris non profit agencies decided that a joint effort could begin to change that picture.
So in a tiny room at the then-United Way of Morris County, they gathered and fought back. This was the Morris County Housing Alliance.
There was the Housing Partnership, and Morris Habitat for Humanities Homeless Solutions, housing authorities from Denville, Madison and Morris County, NewBridge Associates and Community Hope, and others.
Step by step they redefined how the issue of affordable housing would be presented to Morris County.
It was not just about finding a house, but about supporting families, ending homelessness, supporting businesses by making it easier for their employees to live closer to their job, developing neighborhoods by turning underused dwellings into rebuilt, solid homes; it was about librarians, shop clerks, office workers, newly weds, single parents, about kids who needed an anchor. About homes for seniors, homes for disabled workers, about pride, dignity, commitment and dedication.
In a larger sense it was about bringing life back to the center of town and customers to local shops, about reducing traffic on the highways, about making it easier and cheaper to get to work, and maybe making it easier for families on the lower end of the economic ladder to get to that next step.
The result was, unit by unit, new affordable homes and apartments sprouting across the county.
But more, it was about agencies learning how to cooperate, plan, and how policy and minds are changed.
On April 26, The Rose House, the provider of housing for developmentally disabled adults, will honor one for the leaders of the Housing Alliance, Michelle Roers, chief professional officer of the Morris office of the United Way of Northern New Jersey.
She, along with Mary Schaeffer and Tim Butler, will be honored for their work in the areas of special needs, housing, autism.
At a time when we as a nation have forgotten how to debate without rancor, when we have forgotten that it takes all of us to repair, build and move forward, these pioneers have shown how to strip away the nonsense, how to change institutions and attitudes to address one of the most basic human needs.
It takes a lot of work, it takes courage and heart, because the other choice is to accept the notion that to every other person in the world, we are “them.”
Michael Stephen Daigle