Resident Jose Osorio and his wife have lived in their mobile home on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen for the last 12 years, paying about $400 per month to stay in the trailer park. But due to a developer’s intention to buy the land from the owner, Osorio and his 86 neighbors have been told to leave approximately 12 months from now, in January of 2010.
Osorio, 63, paid $30,000 for the home when he moved here from Peru, and now he does not know when he’ll be able to retire.
“I’m waiting for the last moment,” he said recently. “I don’t want to lose my mobile home, because I don’t want to lose $30,000.”
Despite the current economic downturn, every town in Hudson County is being built up, buoyed by their proximity to Manhattan. Even in communities that used to be rundown and forgotten, some of the longer-term residents can no longer afford to stay just as their blocks are becoming transformed into vibrant neighborhoods.
The tenants of the Manhattan Trailer Park on Tonelle Avenue reside in a waterfront town where single-family homes sell for upwards of $300,000 and apartments rent from $900 to more than $2,000 a month. The park is in an old industrial part of town far west of the waterfront – but conveniently, they’re right next door to a newly built NJ Transit light rail station.
Nearby, in Jersey City, the glistening waterfront area and parts of dilapidated Journal Square are being rebuilt, with artists forced to move out of old factory buildings like 111 First St. just as these once-industrial neighborhoods blossom. Even in that city’s public housing projects, dozens of residents of a complex called Montgomery Gardens will be forced to move when the buildings are demolished and turned into mixed-income units by a private developer within the next five years.
In Hoboken, artists are still clinging to studios in two converted factories in town, but must find themselves bracing for developers’ plans to renovate them into condos.
The artist community
It was in the 1970s that the artists who could no longer afford to live in SoHo and the Village looked for affordable space in Hoboken and eventually Jersey City. In the 1980s, massive condo conversions took over Hoboken, followed by Jersey City’s waterfront. Places like West New York and Weehawken developed their own arts scenes, but now those areas are expensive as well.
Christine Goodman, the director and founder of an arts organization in Jersey City called Art House Productions, said art organizers have had to take on the role of helping people who can’t afford to stay in their town find other places to live.
Art House Productions is housed in the old St. Francis Hospital at Hamilton Square and has been allowed to stay there rent-free while the Exeter Property Company, LLC develops their Living on the Park development there, but it is not a permanent solution.
Goodman said that arts organizations are really “out of luck” in finding affordable space due to the trend of luxury residential and commercial development filling a county short on space.
“There is absolutely a real crunch,” said Goodman. “It would be wonderful to see more people who have the space [and are] thinking outside of the box in terms of what they can develop.”
In the last 10 years, developers have been buying rundown warehouses in Jersey City, which used to be the only affordable locations for artists to live and work.
For 15 years, artists in Jersey City lived and worked in an old P. Lorillard Tobacco factory at 111 First St., a 24-hour accessible building. But it was torn down in 2007 so a private developer could build condos. The last artists had moved out in 2004 after a long court battle with the landlord.
Several former tenants of 111 First St. moved to a former soap factory in Union City, up the hill from Hoboken, but those residents were told two years ago that the owner expects to develop it in the near future.
Jersey City residents pushed out
Telissa Dowling was homeless years ago, before she was able to move into low-income housing in Guttenberg. Now, she lives in Jersey City and has been a housing advocate for the last 10 years.
Dowling is concerned that certain types of federal “HOPE” grants have pushed people out of low-income housing under the guise of replacing it with mixed-income units, which some of the residents cannot afford.
She said that when the towers of Curries Woods, a Jersey City affordable housing complex, were torn down and replaced with mixed-income housing in the late 1990s, only two families were able to return.
She helped put together a “False Hope” report illustrating how these initiatives pushed people out of Jersey City and even out of the state.
“We knew a change was coming,” lamented Curries Woods Tenant Advisory Board Chairperson Barbara Wise at a Jersey City Tenants Advisory Board meeting last month. “We can see it on the waterfront…but meanwhile, they’re building up and pushing us out.”
Unlike single artists who may be in the area for its culture, long-time families also have to worry that if they leave their hometown, their kids may have to get used to schools in a new town.
Dr. John Hasse, a sprawl expert and professor of geology at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., has been studying sprawl and its affects on New Jersey. Recently he was a part of an exhibit at the Jersey City Museum titled “Parallel Grounds.” Artist Hector Canonge’s installation allowed museum goers to scan a location of New Jersey through bar codes and watch videos about the land use over the last three decades.
Hasse said that urban sprawl development in rural areas is consuming a large percentage of land, but is owned a small percentage of wealthy people.
“If it’s a hot place like Hoboken, then that’s the place to be, and the property values are skyrocketing,” said Hasse.
3,617 affordable units may be built
Ironically, many of these towns do have thousands of units of old affordable housing, both built by private developers and by the government. Mile-square Hoboken alone has more than 1,353 units in its public housing projects. But people who secured one of these coveted spaces decades ago when the met the income limit are not eager to leave, and the wait lists for the units are long.
There is not much land to build new affordable housing, but recently amended state regulations are forcing developers to include affordable components in their upscale developments.
Every municipality in Hudson County currently falls under the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) rules, which were recently amended by the state Senate. Now, cities must create more affordable housing units through their own funds by 2018.
These housing obligations, effective beginning Oct. 20, project 3,617 additional affordable units for Hudson County.
COAH arrived at that number by looking at area job and population growth.
There will especially be growth in the area due to the nearby $2 billion Xanadu recreation complex in Rutherford, which is expected to create more than 20,000 permanent jobs.
However, several towns think COAH’s expectations are too high.
Officials in Secaucus recently filed a suit to keep a proposed housing development, Secaucus XChange at 100 New County Road, from being forced to change its plan to conform to the third round COAH guidelines. Before, the developers anticipated 230 units of affordable housing in their 2,000-plus unit development, but under the new rules, they will have to provide 415.
Secaucus officials say they will have to change all of their planning for the impact of the development if the developer has to build more luxury units to combat profit losses from building more affordable units.
Currently the affordable units are being offered to qualified applicants for $317 to $925, while the market rate apartments fetch from $1,695 to $2,450.
In neighboring North Bergen, Town Administrator Chris Pianese said that COAH’s projected growth rates are, for the most part, derived from data that is not the “true snapshot of today.”
“They wouldn’t know specifically how many units we truly have [or] how much in terms of development there’s been,” said Pianese.
North Bergen currently has 2,237 affordable housing units, but COAH expects the municipality to gain 3,468 jobs by 2018. After the round III regulations, Pianese said that COAH estimated an additional 250 units are needed. Previous affordable housing development is not included in the expected housing contribution.
Pianese said he is working on a development plan that will be submitted to COAH, but he is waiting to see if some of COAH’s regulations are clarified before completing it. A response is expected later next year.
North Bergen Mayor and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco said he didn’t vote in favor of the new COAH amendments for numerous reasons.
He said that for one, the legislation does not allow municipalities to offer the housing to their own residents first.
“I would love to have affordable housing for people who live and work in town who don’t have high incomes,” said Sacco. “I would think that would be a great idea if town residents got priority.”
Sacco is not sure how and where the new units will be built.
Sacco said there has always been a need to provide affordable housing and that there are a lot of people working to satisfy it, but feels that the state’s “heavy-handed” legislation is not the right way.
In the past, towns were able to pay other towns to take over their affordable housing obligations, but that will no longer be allowed.
NB and Secaucus ‘Not an island’
Kevin Walsh, Esq. has brought municipalities to court on behalf of the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill because the towns failed to satisfy their housing obligations. He charged that Secaucus has done worse than normal in providing affordable housing. The new COAH regulations for the Meadowlands area, which includes Xanadu and its hundreds of jobs, will force nearby towns to add “well over” 1,000 units in the next decade.
Walsh said that while there were affordable housing regulations before the last three rounds of legislation, they were never enforced, and Secaucus allowed residential developments without including enough affordable units.
But Secaucus officials believe their town is shouldering a lot of the burden for affordable housing already.
“If you look at Hudson County, only Jersey City has more affordable housing units other than Secaucus,” said Town Administrator David Drumeler.
Drumeler said that some of the growth share numbers look “odious” and feels that there is a possibility that less development will take place because building so many more affordable housing units will not be feasible for developers.
The new round III COAH regulations increased the affordable housing percentage that every residential development must provide from roughly 11 percent to 20 percent of the total units, even if providing such housing was never the original plan. They also require non-residential developments to contribute 5 per cent of their total assessed value to town-specific housing funds.
Like Sacco, he believes that his town’s residents should get the first opportunity for housing.
“We certainly don’t want to sound like isolationists either,” said Drumeler. “Folks have grown up here. Their parents pay taxes here. We think that fosters a certain relationship with the town.”
Walsh disagreed, and said all towns will benefit from affordable housing in their region. He said that when a wealthier town has a mall, it’s not as if that town is the only one to profit from it. In previous decades, Walsh said, wealthier towns have been able to let other municipalities assume their affordable housing obligations.
“The reality is that no town is an island,” said Walsh. “A small wealthy town that doesn’t have a hospital, doesn’t have a prison, doesn’t have any of these places where the lower-wage jobs are should still have an obligation to provide affordable housing even if the people aren’t working in that town.”
Need more units
According to a COAH housing policy report in 2006, the 2000 U.S. Census found that there were 270,000 new households created in New Jersey between 1990 and 2000. This 9.7 percent increase in housing units built outpaced a 7.6 percent increase in affordable housing. In this document, COAH said New Jersey has “consistently ranked as one of the least affordable states for rental housing.”
Walsh said the state hasn’t kept up with current influx of new residents, especially when about 40 percent of the New Jersey population qualifies for affordable housing.
Paul Bellan-Boyer is a deacon for St. Mathews Lutheran Church in Jersey City and the chairman for the New Jersey Regional Coalition Housing Task Force, which fought for New Jersey’s Fair Share Plan. This legislation outlines municipal obligations for affordable housing under COAH.
Previously, municipalities could sell their housing obligations to surrounding towns, a practice which Bellan-Boyer, through community outreach with congregations throughout the state, fought to end.
Bellan-Boyer said that over the years many members of his congregation, especially from Jersey City, have told him that the area has become increasingly unaffordable for them.
A few municipalities are adding to their public housing projects, although not by much. Public housing was first conceived in 1937 to help people get out of the Great Depression.
“I grew up in affordable housing. I know what a difference it made for my family.” – Sal Vega
One will consist of 70 townhouses located on 56th Street, and will offer units ranging from low-income to market rate. Low-income families will be able to purchase a unit for $40,000. The building is just beginning construction.
Kennedy Tower II, located at 438 62nd St., has 71 units for seniors who qualify for a federal Section 8 housing subsidy or whose income falls within a certain range. The third and fourth floors are designated for handicapped seniors who may need additions like roll-in showers.
Vega said that he is hopeful that another project on 49th Street will also get underway, a joint effort between West New York and Union City.
“I grew up in affordable housing,” said Vega. “I know what a difference it made for my family, going from a rundown building on 51st and Hudson in the early ’70s to going to the Overlook [affordable housing building].”
What’s next for trailer folks
Meanwhile, despite objections from the residents and their attorney, the eviction deadline for the Manhattan Trailer Park remains at January, 2010.
“Most people over here don’t have the most money in the world.” – Anthony Pomponio
Jose Osorio’s daughter Leonora and her fiancé, Anthony Pomponio, say they will help her parents if they are forced out, but they are morally opposed to what’s happening.
“The reality is, with a falling economy and the house market crumbling at the same time, just to get into a home, you need a 650 credit score and you need 30 percent down,” said Pomponio last week. “Most people over here don’t have the most money in the world, or else they probably wouldn’t be here to begin with. And you’re kicking out these people. Where are they supposed to go?”