NJ Thinks Very Small, Hoping To Make Big Difference In Affordable Housing

Can ‘tiny homes’ establish a firm enough foundation in the Garden State, giving the homeless and the poor a way to put a roof over their head?

New Jersey lawmakers are taking another crack at increasing the stock of low-cost living arrangements available to homeless or extremely low-income residents by advancing a bill that would promote “tiny homes.”

The Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee unanimously approved on Monday S-177, which would create a $5 million “Tiny Home Pilot Project.” The program would be overseen by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. It would award funds to one or two municipalities in each of the northern, central, and southern parts of the state to build houses no bigger than 300 square feet — comparable to a large recreational vehicle. These would be available for rent to people with incomes of less than 30 percent of the area median, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates as $19,950 for the state.

“This is something that I think is really an out-of-the box-idea,” said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) and a sponsor of the bill. “I think it is really taking the homeless issue on, being as creative as we possibly can be in this state.”

Sherry Rubel, a major proponent of the legislation, said the time she spent photographing what was known as Tent City, a community of the homeless living in the woods in Lakewood before the township closed it down in 2014, is what drove her to push for a solution to the problem of homelessness in New Jersey.

“As stated in the bill, ending homelessness should be a joint goal of both state and local government,” Rubel wrote in her testimony to the committee. “The self-reliant, sustainable model outlined in S-177 is a significant step towards the deployment of pilot programs that will achieve that goal.”

Second try for ‘tiny’

It’s the second try at moving this bill through the Legislature. In December 2016, it cleared the same committee, then died in the Senate Budget Committee. At the moment, the website of the Office of Legislative Services indicates the bill is going directly to the floor of the upper house, rather than to the budget committee.

New Jersey’s affordable-housing crisis has not eased much, if at all, in the past 18 months. The state remains the sixth most-expensive in the nation, and the typical renter does not earn enough to reasonably afford an average-priced studio apartment without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing, according to the 2018 “Out of Reach” report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

“There should be no such thing as ‘affordable housing’; all housing should be affordable,” Rubel said. “Yet, the need for affordable housing continues to grow every year and the result is an unbearable economic burden on the state and its taxpayers.”

Last March, a state Superior Court judge overseeing two Mercer County housing cases calculated that New Jersey needs to build close to 155,000 affordable units through 2025. After more than a decade of inaction by the state to promote the construction of low-income housing, more than 200 municipalities have reached court settlements to at least zone for and in some cases have started to build affordable homes to fulfill their obligations under the Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel doctrine. That doctrine, in the form of a series of rulings, holds that all communities must provide their fair share of homes for those of limited means.

A major incentive to municipalities to join the pilot program would be that they would earn two credits toward fulfilling their affordable-housing obligations for every tiny unit they build.

Tiny houses on TV

Many people probably know about the "tiny house" movement through one of several television shows — “Tiny House Nation,” “Tiny House Hunters,” and “Tiny House Big Living,” or the sitcom “Life in Pieces.” The trend includes younger couples looking for a low-priced house, empty nesters who are downsizing, and the middle-aged adding a home on their property for a relative or visitors.

Thus far, New Jersey has not been especially friendly to the trend. Municipal zoning governs what kinds of homes a person can build and that has been one of the bars to the construction of tiny-home developments. Most zoning codes have minimum square-footage requirements and other rules for new home construction that the average tiny house would not meet. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical home in the Northeast in 2010 included 2,336 square feet, which is almost eight times bigger than the tiny homes that could be built under the pilot program. Less than 3 percent of New Jersey housing units last year were studio apartments.

Under the bill, the pilot program would operate for three years. In applying for the pilot, municipalities would indicate how many homes they would build and estimate the rent they would charge. The NJHMFA would also be tasked with using rental assistance programs and other means to make the tiny homes affordable.

The bill does not anticipate a state cost for the grant portion of the pilot, directing the NJHMFA to seek funds from the federal government and other sources to implement it. Municipalities would be eligible for a portion of $1.65 million a year for three years to build the tiny-home developments.

Counting the homeless

In 2017, more than 8,500 New Jerseyans were counted as homeless, though advocates think the actual number is likely higher.

“We all have to recognize, no matter where we come from, we definitely have a problem with homelessness in our state,” Stack said.

A number of organizations and advocates for the homeless and low-income are supporting the bill.

Perry Shaw, chairman of the Mercer County Reentry Task Force, said the pilot project will help reduce homelessness among a number of different populations: “our homeless veterans who have sacrificed so much for all of us and our country; our returning citizens who have made mistakes in their past, served their time and are now attempting to return back into society and want to be productive citizens … our homeless young-adult population who are looking for a stable place to lay their head.”

Wraparound services

Shaw said the project will also help advocates assist the residents of these developments.

“This bill will be the foundation that we can build off of to provide a host of wraparound services that include training, counseling and assistance with employment,” he said. “These services will not only benefit the individuals but their families and the communities they reside in.”

The only concern voiced by senators on the committee was that the bill explicitly state that a municipality’s participation in the pilot would be voluntary, something Stack promised to add to the legislation.

There has been at least some opposition to allowing tiny homes into a community in New Jersey. For instance, Tuckerton officials rejected a proposal in 2016 by the organization Ocean Inc. to build a tiny-home development that would have included 10 micro houses for homeless veterans after residents living near the site objected to it.

Rubel said she hopes that successful pilot projects throughout the state will help convince other municipalities that tiny homes are a viable option for housing the homeless and low-income people.

“If we are ever going to conquer this crisis, we must think outside the box and consider the viability of alternative solutions,” she said. “We must engage from within our communities and mobilize to give these pilot programs our encouragement. We must overcome the ‘NIMBY’ mindset and accept responsibility for being part of the solution rather than just being another obstruction.”

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