Earlier this month, Union City passed an amendment to the city’s rent control ordinance recognizing that an “emergency” exists in terms of a lack of affordable rental housing within city limits. The revised ordinance bans landlords from withholding available housing units by requiring them to report a vacancy exceeding 90 days to the Rent Leveling Board Office.
The issue arose recently after two fires in the city forced residents into the streets. Mayor Brian Stack asked landlords to come forward who might have apartments available that these residents could afford.
Edwards cites last year as the shelter’s busiest year ever, with many “working homeless.”
Subsidized units, homeless shelter
Affordable housing is a term used to describe units that rent for roughly 30 percent of a household’s gross income.
Along with the shortage of existing affordable housing stock in the area, the Union City ordinance recognizes the insufficient construction of new affordable units. The city itself is densely populated, with little room for new construction.
Union City and West New York both have federal housing projects for low-income people. The waiting list for the Union City Housing Authority, regulated by U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD), has remained closed for two years, at capacity with 1,000 waiting to gain entrance to one of the 455 one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom units.
Of those 455 units, 101 are set aside as senior housing at 3700 Palisade Ave. The rest of the units are distributed at the following locations: 512 3rd St, 3901 and 3911 Kennedy Blvd., and 634, 640, and 660 39th St. The units, which cost from $50 a month to $1,200, rent for 30 percent of the renter’s income, which means that a job loss may force the rent down with proper documentation.
The approximate waiting time for somebody on the waiting list, according to a Union City Housing Authority employee, is eight years, with most of the turnover occurring with the two-bedroom units and the least accessible being the one-bedroom units.
Fire victims or domestic violence victims in need of immediate support have sometimes been allowed by the Union City Housing Authority to bypass the waiting list and occupy vacant apartments for a limited time. However, that would still require apartments to become vacant. In the case of the recent fire victims, they were able to find alternative housing through relatives or other means.
The West New York Housing Authority also offers affordable housing for lower-income residents, with 241 family units and 473 senior citizen units, for a total of 714 units in eight developments.
However, the waiting list for senior housing is four to five years, while the family waiting list, which currently has 600 on it, is 10 to 12 years. The last person to be placed in a vacant apartment, according to Executive Director Robert DiVincent, had initially applied in 1998.
Since many people cannot afford down payments on new homes in these tough economic times, they have preferred to rent, leaving the rental market more competitive. As home prices drop, apartment rents increase.
Emory Edwards, executive director of a homeless shelter in Union City, Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation (PERC), said that the housing market in the county is “unrealistic” for low-income renters, with rental rates skyrocketing and employed residents trapped in the shelter system or looking to PERC for services.
PERC can accommodate 40 people each night, and more in the wintertime through the county’s winter emergency system that allows the shelter to accommodate an additional 50 people in their dining room.
For people that cannot be accommodated a particular night, PERC works to find referrals through other contacts, such as the Hoboken Shelter and St. Lucy’s in Jersey City.
The duration of one’s stay at PERC cannot exceed 120 consecutive days, Edwards said, as the goal is to get a person into a more permanent home. The shelter says 37 percent of shelter guests find permanent housing.
The PERC savings program, which makes guests save one third of their income, helps them to put down a security deposit on an apartment, he said.
PERC is undertaking efforts, along with other community action groups, to help those affected by the housing crisis.
‘Out of balance’
According to Edwards, the “out of balance” housing situation in Hudson County is pervasive, due to the already limited affordable housing stock and decline of new construction.
Decades ago, people with little income could try to rent a room at a boarding house. Nowadays, most local towns do not allow single-room occupancy dwellings, or rooming houses, although a few of them still exist. Recently, the town of Secaucus found an illegal rooming house in one building and shut it down. Such houses often involve people paying weekly rents for a room without its own bathroom, shower, and emergency exits.
Edwards said the going rate for one-bedroom apartments in the area starts at $800. These rates are far out of reach for a minimum wage earner, who would have to work 76 hours a week to even afford the most basic apartment, according to Edwards. And that’s before considering utilities, food, and other living expenses.
“Food and shelter remain persistent problems in the North Hudson area,” says the website for the North Hudson Community Action Coalition, a local health care service for low-income people. It says the growing population of low-wage workers is an exacerbating element.
Edwards cites last year as the shelter’s busiest year ever, with many of the users regarded as “working homeless.” Renters outside the shelter system often sought the support of PERC for services after rent depleted their resources, with PERC serving up 72,000 soup kitchen meals in 2010.
“[At this time], not everyone is able to be fully independent without some level of service or care,” Edwards said. “There [are] not a lot of options for people working an average job.”
Other services to help
PERC continues to receive referrals from various agencies such as NHCAC and United Way.
NCAC provides a variety of services such as emergency food and shelter, transitional housing, help with the utility/heat assistance service New Jersey Shares, and a fully rented affordable housing project, Union City Renaissance, which serves 37 families.
In the works for PERC is a $1.2 million housing project for the “chronically homeless,” which is expected to be completed by April. The project entails eight new, individual studio apartments with bathrooms and kitchens for chronically homeless individuals who may have medical problems that prevent them from totally independent living. The units will be built in PERC’s own space and funded by a variety of public and private sources and individual donations.
Edwards is also exploring other options to create more housing.
“Our goal is keep people housed,” he said.
Deanna Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.