We celebrate The Fair Housing Act every April, though it's been more than 50 years since Congress passed the bill in 1968.
The 1968 Act expanded on previous acts prohibiting discrimination related to the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended) disability and family status. Some might think this is not an issue today, but in the past, if you were the "wrong" color or of a "different" religion, you faced discrimination.
While the 1968 Act outlawed discriminatory practices, and enforcement has increased, we must ensure that we never slip backward into distasteful practices that are now illegal.
Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking on the importance of the Fair Housing Act, captured its spirit when she said: "No matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from, you should have a fair and equal opportunity to live, to work and to succeed."
As your legislator, I have sponsored many bills that address home ownership, housing affordability and housing equity and protection.
However, there is a broader tapestry here that goes beyond fundamental discrimination issues. For example, we must ensure that people can afford to buy homes and have access to housing, neighborhoods, and schools that fit into their personal goals.
Every homeowner knows that the first and, in many ways, most formidable obstacle when buying a home is the down payment. Even if you are frugal and follow a savings plan, having the "nut" for a down payment seems like an impossible dream to many.
Allow me to illustrate with several examples of bills that I sponsored:
Senate Bill 335. This bill establishes the New Jersey First-Time Home Buyer Savings Account Program for the purpose of encouraging individuals to accumulate the level of savings necessary for the purchase of their first homes within this State.
Senate Bill 338. This bill, which passed the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee recently, would provide a closing cost credit of one percent of a home purchase price for an eligible first-time homebuyer.
Senate Bill No. 1446. The "New Jersey American Dream Act" appropriates $25 million to provide down payment and home repair assistance to low- and moderate-income first-time home buyers. I find the name of the bill appealing. Owning a home is most people's dream. My bill would provide financial assistance in the form of a grant award for first-time buyers that would not exceed 6% of the purchase price or $10,000, whichever is greater. It would also mandate that recipients awarded the grant receive home-buying counseling to educate them about the expectations related to purchasing a home.
However, in addition to providing people with the assistance they may need to buy their first home, we also need to make sure that others who are not in a position to purchase a home, are able to find safe, affordable and fair housing. To that end, I have authored Senate Bill No. 858, which seeks to consolidate certain affordable housing and assistance applications. It would create a single online application for individuals to pre-apply to multiple affordable and senior housing units and housing developments at one time. No centralized application has this capability now.
This bill matters because it adds clarity and transparency to a system with at least 10 different agencies in a multilayered approach that deal with housing-related issues. This legislation might lack the fireworks of other bills, but it helps everyone who confronts what can be a confounding bureaucracy on this subject. It can be a frustrating process, and citizens deserve a more straightforward, effective, time-saving approach.
The crux of all these efforts dovetails with an accepted belief that everyone deserves fair, equal access to safe and stable housing. Without a doubt, home ownership is the American Dream. It adds financial stability, economic independence and a certain element of pride to one's self-esteem. It also contributes to generational wealth. However, the housing market is unaffordable for many prospective first-time buyers largely because home prices have increased since the start of the pandemic, with remote work and last year’s record-low mortgage rates leading to a boom in demand. Nationally, homes are 34% more expensive than they were before the pandemic started, and would-be buyers have half as many homes to choose from.
Trying to add more people to homeowner status is a worthy goal for everyone. It adds to the strength of our middle class and confers the shared identity of citizens in local communities. Finally, and perhaps most important, it lessens the gap between the haves and the have nots.
That's my take, what's yours?