Addressing Racial Disparity in Homelessness and the Affordable Housing Crisis in NJ

Fair Share Housing Center’s Eric Dobson Highlights Disproportionate Burden on People of Color; Points to Causes

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with The Reverend Eric Dobson who is Fair Share Housing Center’s Director of Community Engagement.

Dobson spoke about how Fair Share supports all national and local efforts that are taking a deeper dive to address the racial disparity around affordable housing opportunities in New Jersey.

Fair Share Housing Center works with the mission to end discriminatory or exclusionary housing patterns which have deprived the poor, particularly those presently living in inner cities, of the opportunity to reside in an environment which offers safe, decent, and sanitary housing near employment and educational opportunities.

Dobson discussed the practices that are most disturbing as Fair Share works to end discriminatory and exclusionary housing patters in New Jersey. Credit checks and background checks are a form of “red lining” that can keep low-income individuals and families out of the rental market. These households might have the income needed to afford an apartment but then are discriminated against because of a poor credit history or background with a history of a past criminal conviction.

“New Jersey is the most diverse state in the nation but we do not talk about how deeply segregated New Jersey is,” says Dobson.

And an eviction notice, rather than the opportunity to work out a rental payment agreement with a landlord, can spiral a family into homelessness. In many cases, it is not only more cost-effective and humane, to assist that household in paying overdue rent then to send them into the homeless system.

Working to ensure that credit checks, background checks and unnecessary evictions do no exacerbate homelessness can help ensure that “Housing is a Right” for all New Jerseyans. Credit checks, background checks and evictions disproportionately keep people of color out of affordable housing rentals.

The Mount Laurel Doctrine declared that municipal land use regulations that prevent affordable housing opportunities for the poor are unconstitutional and ordered all New Jersey municipalities to plan, zone for, and take affirmative actions to provide realistic opportunities for their “fair share” of the region’s need for affordable housing for low and moderate-income people.

In 1985, the New Jersey Legislature, in direct response to the Mount Laurel decisions, enacted the Fair Housing Act, which created the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to assess the statewide need for affordable housing, allocate that need on a municipal fair share basis, and review and approve municipal housing plans aimed at implementing the local fair share obligation.

Dobson cited that because of the Mount Laurel doctrine, we are able to get people into housing in New Jersey. But because of the ten year long battle over COAH in the New Jersey courts, the necessary affordable housing has not been built to meet the needs.

“Many people can’t afford housing in New Jersey, period,” says Dobson.

Foreclosure is another measure that keeps people of color out of affordable housing. Says Dobson, “When people of color do not have access to mortgages or their homes are foreclosed on because of predatory lending practices, the result in tragic.” Fair Share Housing Center along with the NAACP, the Institute for Social Justice and the Supportive Housing Association are all concerned about the issues of access to mortgages and the continuing foreclosure crisis in New Jersey.

Gentrification also plays a role in New Jersey’s housing affordability crisis and homelessness across the state. Dobson asks, “How do we battle gentrification that is forcing low-income households out of neighborhoods that were once affordable?”

Concludes Dobson,

“New Jersey can end homelessness anytime it wants to. We just need the political will do just that.” One way to end homelessness, would be to make abandoned, foreclosed properties available to those experiencing homelessness. “Because the majority of the homeless population in New Jersey is black, there is not the political will to end homelessness.”

NJCounts 2019, the 2019 Point in Time count for New Jersey found that on a single night 8,864 persons were identified as experiencing homelessness.  Among those experiencing homelessness as identified through the NJCounts, 49% identify as Black or African American. This is despite the fact that persons identifying as Black or African American make up only 24% of the population in poverty within the state and only 13% of the total state population.  Conversely, persons identifying as white make up 26% of the population identified as homeless, 33% of the population in poverty and 56% of the total state population. 

At the July 2019 Congressional Reception, a message that advocates brought to our elected officials in Washington, DC is that “Housing is a Right.” Fair Share Housing Center was one of the 37 sponsors of the Congressional Reception that carried the message that “Opportunity Starts at Home: Building a Necessary and Secure Foundation for Healthy Communities” to Washington.