Too much? More like not enough: Many nonprofits work in affordable housing sector, but leaders say need is even greater

Within a large constellation of nonprofits working within affordable housing in New Jersey, there’s the one Taiisa Kelly runs in Cranford. She admits its mission, to ensure housing is inclusive and geared toward vulnerable populations, is far from unique.

But, there’s no number of nonprofits that she expects would be too many in that space.

Here’s why: According to a report published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, New Jersey has more than 300,000 extremely-low-income households, but less than 100,000 affordable and available rentals.

“With a number that large, we don’t have a fear of tripping over each other to close that gap,” Kelly said. “There’s a large number of nonprofits doing this, but the need is just so great. And no single entity alone is equipped to reach the number of units needed in New Jersey.

“The fact is, it’s hard to get resources and the staff together to do this work, and we’ve seen, unfortunately, nonprofits stop doing it because of that. We actually need a resurgence of nonprofits doing this work because of how much there is to be done.”

Kelly heads Cranford-based Monarch Housing Associates, which provides support to both for-profit and nonprofit affordable housing developers. It’s one of many hoping the stars align for affordable housing under a new system in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy this year signed an overhaul to the old process for determining local housing obligations, remaking the rules around how towns determine the number of units they need to add and how they’re credited for them.

Kelly applauded New Jersey’s supportive framework, and believes the state’s efforts have in some ways outdone the response of other states, but said building affordable housing remains fundamentally difficult.

“Affordable housing development can’t be done with just one funding source,” she said. “And what we often see, especially for nonprofits and emerging developers, is that there’s a big hurdle in the significant sums you need to even get started in the process.”

Overall, New Jersey’s rate of affordable housing production has doubled since the state moved from rulemaking through the Council on Affordable Housing to an affordable housing model known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine, according to a report last year from the Fair Share Housing Center. The law Murphy signed this year officially abolishes the Council on Affordable Housing.

Under the new system, towns earn credit toward their affordable housing obligations for each unit they build, plus some credit for, among other things, building housing for individuals with certain disabilities.

Audrey Winkler of JESPY House. (JESPY House)

Audrey Winkler, CEO of JESPY House, works to advance independence for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a number of ways, including supporting their housing needs.

“And, what we’ve seen in our community of South Orange is an incredible escalation of rent,” she said. “Many of our clients, who often don’t work full-time, although some do, can’t keep up. We’ve seen people have to leave. They lose access to services, friends and a beautiful walkable community — when they don’t drive.”

Even with increases in affordable housing stock in the state, there’s not enough.

“What’s out there is available through lottery systems with thousands of people,” she said. “Our clients over the years haven’t benefited from that.”

So, JESPY House decided to build housing for itself.

Winkler said it’s planning to use fundraising, kick-started by a $13.25 million matching gift from the Leon and Toby Cooperman Family Foundation, to build two new buildings, which include residences and education and training facilities.

Like fellow nonprofit leaders, Winkler isn’t worried about stepping on anyone’s toes, or being in too crowded a space. The need is too great for that.

“We have a lot on our plate right now; a lot of nonprofits do,” she said. “We’re not ahead of everyone, but I do hope we’re blazing the trail to some degree in addressing challenges in desperately needed affordable housing, particularly for (individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities).”