Developer’s 2 aims: Better affordable housing, and more diverse builders

By Brett Johnson
Irvington | Mar 1, 2018 at 10:00 am
From our print edition

For Adenah Bayoh, mornings once meant tearing through bags full of clothes strewn about her room. It’s a long process of hunting for the day’s outfit when your clothes don’t fit in a cramped closet.

That was just one annoyance of living in a low-income housing complex in Newark as a teenager, where she landed after escaping Liberia’s civil war as a refugee.

“I used to tell myself, if I ever made a building like this, I’d definitely make bigger closet space,” she said.

As of about a month ago, she lived up to that.

Through her own real estate business, Adenah Bayoh and Cos., she presided over the recent completion of the first phase of The HillTop in Irvington, a mixed-use development on the site of a former hospital. At least 80 percent of the building’s units are being dedicated to affordable housing.

“I wanted to bring features to it like granite countertops, huge bathrooms and large closets,” she said. “I wanted a space that someone can walk in and feel at home. And, for me, that means feeling that a woman had a hand in the development.

“These affordable housing complexes are largely dominated by the mothers and women living there, but that hasn’t been represented by developers (in this) male-dominated industry.”

Bayoh, who has risen in prominence and now has a real estate development portfolio with over $250 million in urban redevelopment projects, feels that a general lack of diversity in the local real estate industry has had the implication of often leaving actual affordable housing residents out of conversations about affordable housing developments.

“It’s very important to understand the community, the end user you’re developing for,” she said. “You have to really get to know the needs of that community as a developer of these projects. And I’m not sure how often that’s happening.”

If the increasing interest in establishing affordable housing in both New Jersey’s urban corridors and long-reluctant suburban pockets is any indication, it’s the right time for people like Bayoh to bring up such issues.

Anthony Campisi, spokesman for New Jersey’s Fair Share Housing Center, said developer interest in affordable housing is at a peak right now, with thousands of residences slated to be built across the state in the coming years.

“One of the reasons we’re seeing developers take this on so much today is that there is pent-up demand,” he said. “In New Jersey — one of the hottest real estate markets in the country — there’s a need that’s constantly growing for places where people who stock the aisles of a grocery store or work in a mall can afford to live in the community they work.”

At least some of the expectation of a booming market for affordable housing is driven by what prospects new Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration brings to New Jersey.

“(Former Gov. Chris) Christie was an implacable opponent of fair housing for the eight years he was in office,” he said. “So, to have someone in Trenton talking about expanding — not curtailing — opportunities for working families is a really positive development. We’re set to make tremendous progress in one of the most expensive states for housing in the country.”

New Jersey is also at a point where efforts to address fair housing laws have culminated in a way that has reshaped policy for many local communities.

Just over a year ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court revived the state’s fair housing laws after those laws sat dormant for more than a decade. The court’s ruling reaffirmed a legal requirement for towns to provide a certain amount of affordable housing for poor and middle-class families.

The Fair Share Housing Center, led by Kevin Walsh, has been dedicated to fighting on behalf of that legal requirement. The battleground now is local trial courts, where some towns are contesting the interpretation of their affordable housing obligations.

“Some towns want to keep excluding,” Walsh said. “The courts have clearly said that towns have to do their fair share to address New Jersey’s housing affordability crisis. … There are some municipal officials that will stop at nothing to slow down or derail the process. We can’t let that happen now that we’re making real progress in building a fairer New Jersey.”

Regardless of the many communities getting involved in litigation over their housing plans, more than 180 towns have crafted ordinances that overturn a history of excluding affordable housing through land use laws, Campisi said. That sets the stage for what he said will be “the best time for affordable housing” that the state has ever experienced.

Bayoh, who has other mixed-use projects with affordable housing components under development, is excited as well. But she still worries about the attention given to diversity among the developers who stand to benefit.

“It’s so great to have this, because people who are working class need a slight hand — not a handout, but a little push — in this expensive New Jersey market,” she said. “I just think it’s as important whenever we’re talking about affordable housing to not just open the floodgate for the same old people to do these projects, but to create more opportunities for a more diverse mix of developers to be involved. We need to change the conversation somewhat.”

Walsh said he believes everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed in the building industry.

“One tool the state has (is) a series of federal requirements meant to open up contracting opportunities to a diverse number of applicants,” he said. “The state should enforce these requirements to ensure that fair housing projects that receive federal funding are open to a diverse applicant pool.”

Bayoh said the biggest issue facing women of color entering the real estate industry is access to capital. There’s limited real estate industry-specific data on this, but Bayoh pointed to a tech-centric study done by Digital Undivided that revealed the majority of black women startups were able to raise just an average of $36,000, significantly less than the $1.3 million average raised by all startups.

Despite the funding discrepancy, Bayoh has managed to find a path to success in the real estate industry. And she does it while creating the sort of spaces she would’ve like to have lived in herself growing up, which she counts as her biggest accomplishment.

“I say all the time: I have survived civil war, I’m going to survive in this business,” she said.

Promising future

Affordable housing advocates expect a busy few years are ahead of them, even if the new governor has been quiet on the topic of affordable housing — relative to some of his campaign’s other talking points.

So far, Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition committee did issue a recommendation that the court process towns are going through to decide the fate of their affordable housing responsibilities continue to play out. The transition office also announced that Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver will head the Department of Community Affairs, which governs aspects of the state’s affordable housing rules.

Kevin Walsh of the Fair Share Housing Center served on the governor’s housing agency transition committee. He said it’s still the administration’s early days, and that the signs so far have all been positive.

“We’re excited at the potential to work with an administration that supports affordable housing and wants to make New Jersey work for working families — instead of spending eight years fighting a governor intent on demolishing New Jersey’s fair housing laws,” he said. “We’re particularly grateful that Lt. Gov. Oliver has been named DCA commissioner, given her long advocacy in this role.”

There’s seemingly no special feeling for affordable housing among the federal government’s current powers that be, but Anthony Campisi, spokesman for the Fair Share Housing Center, said the impact of the federal level on local affordable housing initiatives is minimal.

“It’s always important to have leadership at the federal level, because there are national programs for fair housing that are important,” he said. “But New Jersey has one of the strongest infrastructures for fair housing in the country, and we don’t see the legal process that we’re involved in being impacted by the federal government.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Adenah Bayoh at: adenahbayoh@yahoo.com or 973-371-2222.