By Michael Fressola
Mayor, Manchester Township
I am sure many of you are aware of the state’s plans to close large institutions throughout the state that currently accommodate a substantial number of citizens with intellectual or developmental disabilities. If these institutions begin to close, the burden of
providing housing for this challenged population may fall on municipalities. Municipalities are also facing the challenge of housing aging veterans, who can no longer maintain their current living situations, due to health or financial problems.
In Manchester Township we have available properties that might be able to house small groups of citizens who need on site care. We welcome input from other towns and agencies on how we can meet the housing needs of all types of citizens. The following are some actions we have taken.
Housing for Those With Disabilities I believe we have a moral obligation as a municipality to help provide housing to these vulnerable citizens and become advocates on this issue. Meeting these responsibilities locally can also provide a benefit to the municipality.
In the area of disabled small group housing, we have taken a two-step approach. Step one was to partner with organizations that have been successful in providing staffed small group homes for our most disabled citizens. As I write this, Manchester Township has begun working with two successful non-profit organizations. Our next step is to locate available housing that meets the requirements of the non-profit organizations and the State of New Jersey.
There have been rumors and statements attributed to the Department of Community Affairs of new guidelines which municipalities must satisfy to protect the Affordable Housing Trust Fund money.
The rumors include the possibility of the state taking over the funds, if they are not used within a certain period of time. We have been told that having an approved Spending Plan may not, in of itself, protect a municipality from state seizure of these funds. Actual dedication and spending of these funds must be taking place. Because little or no new residential construction is going on (due to the economy), other avenues must be explored, such as a review of our available housing stock.
When a township contributes trust fund money to the purchase of a home by an agency approved to operate a group home, the Department of Community Affairs will match the amount of money contributed by the municipality. In addition, the municipality receives credit toward its housing obligation. Here in Manchester we have also been able to work out PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) programs to the benefit of our township.
When the Department of Community Affairs broadened this program, they announced on December 21, 2011, that their short term goal was to create housing for an additional 600 people with developmental disabilities. Back in 2005, the state created the Special Needs Housing Trust Fund to provide 10,000 new affordable housing opportunities for people with developmental disabilities, dedicating $200 million to this project. Six years and $168 million later, it has provided housing for only 1,500 people. Only 15 percent of the goal was met despite the allocation of 84 percent of the money.
At this cost to housing ratio, only approximately 500 new units could be created. If municipalities would cooperate by contributing housing trust fund money, the number of additional units could double.
According to state statistics, there are over 8,000 people with developmental disabilities on the waiting list for adequate housing.
Small Group Homes for Older Veterans Another housing issue facing our municipality is housing for aging veterans. Manchester Township is a community of over 43,000 residents with a very large senior population. Our township is also home to many veterans. While the total number of young veterans is increasing, the number of older veterans who can no longer care for themselves or afford or maintain their current living conditions is also increasing. Our research indicates that congregate living in large complexes is not a favorite choice for this population. Our township Administration, together with our ten-member Mayor’s Veterans Advisory Group, has started looking at small housing options.
The group home plan for those with disabilities (discussed above) led us to question whether that concept might work for our senior veterans housing problem.
Congregate houses may provide an attractive option for aging veterans who can no longer maintain their current living situations in town, due to physical or financial limitations
We did extensive research on this issue and found that while there is some temporary housing for homeless veterans, there are very few options for older veterans who can no longer stay in their current homes. So we began to look in the township for available housing that could accommodate at least five or six individuals comfortably with few modifications. Our research tells us that the inventory is there.
Keep in mind that our interest is permanent housing not temporary housing. Members of this veteran’s population could contribute significantly to the house’s expenses, including staffing.
With these goals in mind, we have begun to move ahead, only to find stumbling block after stumbling block. But we haven’t given up. We have had meetings with the Department of Community Affairs, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and a number of successful non-profit organizations that provide congregate housing for various sectors of our population. Each and every one of these organization we’ve reached out to, both the state and the private, have expressed interest and support.
The problem from the state agencies’ viewpoint is that while money may be available, there does not seem to be a mechanism in place to support this kind of veterans housing under existing laws. Recently, however, I read an encouraging statement indicating that by working closely with a not-for-profit private agency, a way may be found. However, funding may remain a challenge.
My next step will be to start a campaign, enlisting the aid of both state and federal elected officials to introduce legislation to provide funding and ground rules for allowing group housing for veterans. If you agree that this is a worthwhile cause, I would greatly appreciate your support as we move forward. Stay tuned.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 4, April 2012