Tom Toronto is the President of Bergen County's United Way.
What are the main projects of the Bergen County United Way in general, and specifically impacting people with disabilities?
At United Way, we’re focused on affordable housing, both development and building. We focus on a cross section of affordable housing, and we have a particular passion for supportive housing for people with disabilities. We build both in Bergen and outside of Bergen - we just opened a 12-unit apartment in New Brunswick, and this week we have a groundbreaking for more housing in Wyckoff. Later this month we have more single family units opening up.
We made the decision a little more than a decade ago that we’d change our business model from redistributing donor dollars to other non-profits to focusing on one major challenge, which was affordable housing. There is always a lack of affordable housing, and in all types of needs assessments, affordable housing is the number one most visible commonality. The lack of affordable housing cascades into other issues, such as financial security. The only way to meaningfully address the issue was to actually increase the supply of homes people could afford. So we became a developer. We started to work with individual municipalities. Supportive housing became a big need since there were a lack of group homes. At one point, there were an estimated 8,000 or so people on the waiting list for people desiring community placement. That’s how it started. With the persistent need for housing, it gave us the opportunity to be somewhat innovative for people with Autism, which is what we did in Ramsey. From a design perspective as well as quality of life, over time we’ve seen happiness with the tenants.
What is the environment for affordable housing for people with disabilities? What are the major challenges and opportunities?
I think the awareness of the issue and the level of understanding is increasing. We’re finding that more municipalities, as a result of the construction and housing we’ve been doing, they’re much more open to supportive housing as a way to satisfy their affordable housing requirements. There’s a border acceptance and understanding among elected officials. The attractiveness of the projects, success in terms of community acceptance. The word has spread, and we’re looked upon as a partner for municipalities.
One of the main challenges that remains is funding. Building in New Jersey, particularly in north Jersey is expensive. Land is expensive, because we’re competing for all the pieces that make a project successful, such as amenities, proximity to transportation - if you’re located near a transit village, that drives up the price of the land. Then there’s the cost of building. Construction costs, permitting, approvals, engineering, architecture, legal, environmental remediation, there’s a lot that goes into these projects, and the costs are quite high.
What steps do you take, in any step of the development process, to ensure people in BCUW residences have access to important resources, such as transportation?
We’re not service providers, we’re developers. However, we do take responsibility for quality of life. We build where transportation is already available, or can be provided through Access Link, Community Transport, or service providers. We understand that transportation is vital for living a connected life.
What are some of the biggest challenges to building more affordable housing?
The most significant challenge for us is the time it takes to get to completion - it’s significant. Funding channels have gotten tighter and tighter. We’ve considered traditional bank financing, since government subsidies have become harder to get. Conventional bank financing adds another layer of cost, however.
What we’re looking at now is mixing market rate housing and supportive housing. We have a mixed market rate housing project in Fort Lee that opened a few months ago. Because of financing challenges, mixing market rate and affordable housing helps. Programmatically, it helps with regards to diversifying, having different groups living together, which is a good thing. We want to do more of the market-affordable housing.
What is the future of affordable housing for people with disabilities in north Jersey?
I am optimistic about the future of affordable housing. Confidence among elected officials is high. We’re looking at a piece of property now, which would use borough funds to build a group home on town property. There’s a heightened awareness from local officials. In the past, they’ve been mystified about the concerns people have had about supportive housing. People have always had fears about it. But the way we see it, each project we build strengthens the argument for building this housing. So many communities can build housing - and many have. Another indication of success is that towns we’ve built with in the past have invited us back. The comfort level with these projects is increasing, and there are quite a few more projects in the pipeline.
Find out more about Bergen County's United Way at http://www.bergenunitedway.org/