The Secaucus High School auditorium was packed last Tuesday evening with hundreds of New Jersey residents who anxiously waited to see when their name would be called in the most important lottery of their lives.
The prize hanging in the balance: one of the 102 affordable housing units being built in the first two phases of Xchange at Secaucus Junction, the new mixed-income housing development over by Laurel Hill Park.
In the middle of the anxiety was Bill Snyder, executive director of the Secaucus Housing Authority, who oversaw the lottery and who must now walk applicants through an intricate maze of affordable housing regulations before he hands over the keys to apartments.
According to Snyder, the housing authority received a total of 613 applications, including 100 from Secaucus residents.
The first phase of Xchange, which is already completed, includes 64 affordable housing units located in the development’s Building C. Another 38 affordable housing units will be added to a second building under construction.
And the entire development will have a total of 220 units of affordable housing when all phases of Xchange are finished.
Tuesday’s lottery was for the first 102 units only. Snyder said there will be another separate lottery for the remaining 118 units later.
Applicants whose names were drawn at the top of the list, however, aren’t necessarily homeward bound, Snyder explained. They must now go through a rigorous – and complicated – certification process to ensure they meet New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) eligibility requirements.
“I can tell you now, there are people who are not going to be happy with how this works out,” Snyder said two days after the lottery. “People are already unhappy. I already have people calling up saying, ‘This is a fix.’ But COAH rules don’t make it easy because we are forced to bypass people because the requirements are so complicated.”
“First, [applicants] must provide proof that they currently live or work in Region 1, which includes Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, and Sussex counties. There’s no preference for local residents. The only preference you get is for living or working in this region.”
Next, applicants have to prove their family composition and prove that the members of their family all live together.
Families who meet these first two requirements, Snyder said, will then be assigned an apartment, based on their family composition.
“Let’s say you have a husband and wife and two children, and the two children are both boys, they’ll be assigned a two bedroom unit,” Snyder explained. “If you have a husband and wife and two children, but it’s a boy and a girl, that family would be assigned a three bedroom unit because COAH requires us to separate children of different genders.”
Even after being assigned a unit there are still other requirements applicants must meet and prove as part of the certification process. For example, they must prove that they meet income requirements for affordable housing under COAH regulations.
Ironically, applicants, even those who were selected at the top of the lottery drawing, may be bypassed, Snyder said, because they make either too much – or even too little – to qualify for affordable housing. COAH doesn’t allow applicants to pay more than 35 percent of their annual income on rent.
“There are five tiers of income for each bedroom category – one bedroom, two bedrooms, three bedrooms,” Snyder said. “How much rent you pay is based upon the tier that you’re in. The long and short of this is, the people who write this stuff up make it far more complicated than it really needs to be. Because here’s what can happen, you could be No. 25 on the lottery list and you need a one bedroom. Well, we only have 20 one-bedroom units, and we only have 12 one-bedrooms available now. So, if I fill up all of my one bedroom units within the first 24 applicants, you don’t get a unit. I’d have to bypass you. So, you could be bypassed because we either don’t have the bedroom or income tier that you fit into.”
Snyder added that applicants who are in an income tier that has already been filled can also be bypassed.
Rent on the units will range from $317 a month to $925, depending on the number of bedrooms and the residents’ income.
The Secaucus housing authority has four employees who will be certifying applicants. Snyder said he expects the certification process to take about one month.
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LOTS OF AMENITIES
– In addition to the 64 affordable housing units currently available, Xchange also features 240 units that will be rented at market rate. Rents for the market rate luxury apartments range from $1,695 for one bedroom units to $2,450 for three bedroom apartments.
A bit isolated from northern Secaucus, Xchange appears to be a world unto itself. But developers of the project dispute that impression.
According to Jeremy Halpern, one of the lead developers of Xchange, the development, which opened on May 15, is 60 percent leased.
“The response has been tremendous,” Halpern said. “A very high percentage of people who actually come over and take a look at Xchange end up signing a lease.”
Halpern speculates that most of the people currently living at Xchange were people who lived in Western and Central New Jersey and who work in New York City. He also added that the development is attracting younger residents – 35 and younger – to Secaucus.
He estimates that as many as 100 Xchange tenants were already Secaucus residents before moving to the luxury rental facility.
“We offer great amenities,” he said. “It’s obviously close to public transportation. We have a shuttle that goes back and forth to the train and two days a week it takes you out to the shopping districts in town. And we’ve tried to create a lush world for our residents.
That lush world, Halpern noted features an outdoor amphitheater which he hopes will eventually become a gathering place for Xchange residents and others living in the northern section of Secaucus.
“This community isn’t just for people living at Xchange,” Halpern said. “As I see it, the amphitheater will be like our own Central Park where people can get together for community events and concerts…I don’t see Xchange as being separate from the rest of Secaucus at all. My hope is that in time the northern part of town and the area that we’re in will develop towards each other.”