How Ostrowsky believes housing can make Newark residents healthier

Twenty-four hours after the announcement — after the idea of one of the state’s largest health care organizations working with developers and government agencies to produce what can best be described as good-health-producing housing in Newark — Barry Ostrowsky knows the real work is just beginning.

How do you turn the vision of an incredible social program into a reality?

“The trick to social programs that work is to somehow ensure that the various core businesses of the participants are in fact supported and continue after all the glamour of the announcement and the ribbon-cutting has subsided,” Ostrowsky, the CEO of RWJBarnabas Health, said. “And I think that is something we look forward to.”

The project, Ostrowsky said, is something he has looked forward to for years. And he is confident the 70 affordable rental apartments that will be built in the South Ward of Newark with help from RWJBH, the development firm Pennrose, the city of Newark and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency will have the intended impact.

A rendering of the planned project in Newark.

“In order to do what we are trying to do, which is make communities healthier, it just can’t be about health care services,” he said. “I think most of the experts, and I certainly would subscribe to this, would suggest that, if you’re living in substandard housing with all of the unfortunate problems that that brings — and that could be spending 90% of your disposable income on rent and not having enough to buy the right food or for your family’s other needs — challenges will follow.

“So, building housing turns out to be one of the most important social determinants in terms of helping the community be healthier.”

The rental apartments, which will be located in the 997 block of Bergen Street, will be just blocks from Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. The six-story building will have one- to three-bedroom apartments and will make sure to serve homeless individuals and their families as well as those with special needs.

The hope is to ensure all residents have access to the medical services and special services they need, Ostrowsky said.

“We’ve talked about it for years about, quote, ‘managing lives,’” he said. “And, hopefully, we can do this in a less than overly intrusive way. One approach to our ensuring that we can manage a life to the benefit of the person whose life we are managing is to ensure that they are living in a good spot and have the appropriate support of social and health services. This will allow us to be proactive, as opposed to reactive, when problems set in.”

And while the housing will directly help the 70 families who move into the facility, Ostrowsky said he feels a wider swath of the community will benefit.

“One of the difficult dynamics of dealing with social determinants is that scalability is a challenge,” he said. “And it’s why we have said on a regular basis (that) this starts, unfortunately, with onesies and twosies, and one block and a few blocks, and a neighborhood or two and you try to grow it.

“It would be wonderful if we could go in every neighborhood and build new housing. That is, of course, unlikely. But I think what happens in this particular case is, when this building opens, it will be a serious economic development jolt to a wider community than just the building. And it’s our hope specifically that we will attract businesses, with a variety of governmental support, which won’t turn employ people, which in turn will make it easier for these folks to rent the right kinds of space.”

This is how RWJBH can help survive the wider region, Ostrowsky said.

“We will have the ability to do the social services that we’re going to provide in this new building in existing buildings,” he said. “So, we don’t necessarily have to replicate the physical nature of the building, as opposed to going into existing housing, making sure it’s safe, making sure it meets the various codes that are appropriate and start offering some of the social programs that we are offering in that particularly new building.

“I think that’s our only shot at doing this. Other than razing multiple blocks and rebuilding it, which is really not practical, I think you’re going to have to use social programs and health services in existing housing stock to make it better.”

Doing that, Ostrowsky said, takes teamwork. He acknowledges that many a social program has failed to meet its goals in the past, but he’s confident the group that came together on this project will make a difference.

“I have to say, you rarely see government through a number of agencies, private developers, nonprofit organizations like ours, come together under the umbrella of a program like the one we’re using here and really make a difference,” he said. “Usually, the egos get involved and fight about who’s going to take credit, as well as the bureaucracy. HFMA, which is a wonderful governmental agency, saw this possibility years ago, instituted the program and has been great to work with. The developers, Pennrose, are experts, too.

“After you build this, you need to stay involved. And that’s why the partnership here works. This can be a model program on how you gather government and private industry to do some good.”