After working 25 years in the North Bergen police department, culminating in his position as deputy chief, Gerald Sanzari was uniquely qualified to become executive director of the township’s Housing Authority, a position he took over on April 1.
The Housing Authority manages nearly 1,000 apartments between the township’s senior/disabled buildings and low income housing, and about 5,000 federal Section 8 vouchers.
It didn’t hurt that prior to Sanzari’s law enforcement career he “dabbled” in real estate, managing a luxury rental building in New York City.
“What I did in the police department was not really that different from what I do here,” he said in an interview last week with the North Bergen Reporter. “At the executive levels you’re dealing with problems all day and you need to fix the problems.”
Currently he oversees a staff of about 50 employees. “Managing people is very similar,” he noted. “I was in charge of community policing at the police department, and we’re our own little community here.”
North Bergen has long had a reputation for taking good care of its senior citizens, and Sanzari is dedicated to maintaining and even expanding that tradition. But he also wants to focus on the residents of Meadowview Village, the low income housing development.
“My goal, right from the onset, was to make those people feel just as valued as the senior citizens,” he said.
Among his first actions as executive director was to make better use of the open spaces around Meadowview Village, repurposing some of the fenced-in lawn areas into a community garden and a dog run. The shuttered community room was also targeted to be reopened, and summer programs were instituted for kids, along with bingo nights.
“Tenants appreciate these little things that we’ve been doing,” he said.
Senior and disabled housing
The Housing Authority in North Bergen directly oversees three buildings – or four, or five, depending on how you count. Lawler Towers, considered by the federal government as one complex, actually consists of two 13-story towers containing 253 units in total. The 11-story Terrace Apartments at 6800 Columbia Ave. contains 252 units, and Cullum Tower at 6299 Grand Ave. houses 308 units. All were built between 1967 and 1973 and house both seniors and disabled adults.
“Anyone can come see me at any time. I’ll deal with their problem directly.” – Gerald Sanzari
Sanzari has expanded the Social Services Department within the Housing Authority to offer more services to tenants. Launched four years ago, Social Services is headed by Kathy Paletta, who knew Sanzari for years before they came together in the Housing Authority. “Her energy and enthusiasm and compassion are the formula that’s making it work,” said Sanzari. “She’s always researching and finding out what federal, state, and county programs are available to the seniors to help them. The seniors count on it so much.”
Finding partners throughout the community, Social Services has brought representatives into the buildings to provide information on health, security, transportation, and other critical issues.
Family housing and Section 8
Meadowview Village was built in the late 1930s by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) on the site of a former shanty town during the Depression. The development consists of four five-story buildings and three sets of row houses, totaling 172 units of low income housing.
The community has been upgraded numerous times over the years, most recently last year, and includes basketball courts and a children’s playground.
“Units there don’t come up very often,” said Sanzari. “Residents tend not to move, so there are very few vacancies. The most in-demand are one-bedrooms. They’re just so hard to come by. Nobody leaves those apartments.”
Instead, individuals looking for housing can apply for federal Section 8 vouchers, also administered through the Housing Authority, which has a list of landlords who accept the vouchers as rent payments.
Specific guidelines apply to voucher eligibility, with income restrictions divided into categories of “low,” “very low,” and “extremely low,” and percentages of recipients assigned to each category. North Bergen exceeds federal guidelines in striving to provide assistance to the most needy.
In addition, priorities are assigned based on various criteria. Those who live and work in North Bergen are given precedence. Victims of domestic abuse are further elevated on the list, and individuals or families who experienced a natural disaster receive the highest priority.
Sanzari also added a category for the verifiably homeless. Verification can be ascertained by prior residence in a shelter or hotel, or evidence of eviction.
The cop in him
Sanzari’s police background has assisted in various ways in his new position. “Tenants tend to forget that this is a benefit that the government offers, and there’s no room for fraud,” he said. The Housing Authority employs security staff who investigate any suspicion of illegality.
“Of course my background helps in that area,” he said. “Because I know how to do an investigation. Like if people say they don’t have someone living with them but you see them coming in every day. We have video surveillance throughout all these buildings. We’ve had it for a little over a year. So a lot of it entails getting the evidence we need from the surveillance cameras.”
He is similarly vigilant with employees, recently instituting a new drug testing policy to replace the old, inefficient urine-based system. “I think it’s very important as guardians of public funds that everybody here has to be clean,” he explained.
The new vendor takes hair strands, which are far more accurate than urine samples. “In the past, the reason why companies weren’t taking hair samples was because it was so prohibitively expensive, more expensive than a urine test,” he said. “That’s changed now. The difference is minimal and a hair test is much more proof-positive. It’s held up in the courts much stronger than urine. It can’t be diluted.”
In addition to moving staff around to maximize efficiency, and hiring a bilingual receptionist, Sanzari has instituted an open-door policy. “Anyone can come see me at any time,” he said. “I’ll deal with their problem directly. My phone, same thing. Call me anytime.”
Although he has only been in the position for four months, Sanzari already sees a difference. “When I first started it was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’” he said. “But in the last two months I’m really pleased that I’m here, because I’ve been able to help people. And just to see the relief on their face, some of them are so appreciative. It’s nice.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.