Another program launches to provide affordable housing in a city grappling with homelessness and wealth inequities that grow wider during the pandemic.
On any given night, thousands of people scramble for a spot to sleep in-and-around Newark’s Penn Station. Even, some make small encampments at nearby Riverfront Park and Military Park. During the winters, homelessness worsens, but during the pandemic it has reached beyond crisis levels.
With the rise of the pandemic, the “Code Blue” warming centers set up by the city are running out of room. To avoid the recent frigid temperatures dipping to single digits, homeless populations occupy the limited sections of Penn Station that are left open for those coming in-and-out of trains. Finding refuge on stairs and in every empty corner, train riders must hopscotch and walk through labyrinths of people who just want shelter for the night.
For years, people have asked local and state officials to tackle the growing housing crisis in the city, and throughout the area. Because Newark has more services to offer than many surrounding townships and smaller municipalities, more people migrate to the north Jersey city to find housing. But, the city already is taxed. There is not enough developed, affordable housing in a city with thousands of dilapidated homes.
“The affordable housing shortage in our country is a crisis, and as we are in the midst of this global pandemic, we continue to plan for the looming increase in homelessness,” said Sakinah Hoyte, the Homelessness Czar for Newark in the city press release.
Since Mayor Ras Baraka took office in 2014, efforts to curb housing insecurity have increased. On Thursday, the city will announce a partnership with Claremont Development Partner, Maximilian Dorne, to turn the former Miller Street Elementary School, into an emergency shelter and supportive services center assisting in the transition of homeless Newark residents into housing.
Earlier this month, the city entered into another partnership with five developers and service providers to create 100 transitional, permanent, and supportive housing units, to help end homelessness in Newark.
“It has long been my vision to provide our residents without addresses with decent, livable, and supportive housing, so that they can gain personal independence,” said Mayor Baraka in a release. “These partnerships will help create new opportunities for service providers, and both small and large developers, to collaborate and provide critical, transitional, and permanent supportive housing for our most vulnerable.”
Part of the campaign to address the housing crisis is the “Making Housing Homes: A Housing First Initiative.” A program launched last November, it is committed to ending homeless as well as minimizing social issues that often conflate it such as hunger, recidivism and children not attending school.
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While many of the programs attempt to confront major issues there is a tension becoming tighter: the increasing number of displaced residents alongside a gentrification growth spurt where developers have rehabbed dozens of factories or built quick-quick apartment units in the city. The price tag to live in these “luxury homes” run from roughly $1,700 to about $2,700. In a city where the median income is just over $32,000, most Newarkers cannot manage.
“New Jersey has one of the worst racial wealth gaps in the nation, with the current median net worth for white families at $309,396 and, according to the data from last year, a current median net worth for Black and Latino families at just $5,900 and $7,020, respectively,” said Demelza Baer, Sr. Counsel & Director of the Economic Mobility Initiative at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and co-author of the report, Reclaiming the American Dream: Expanding Financial Security and Reducing the Racial Wealth Gap Through Matched Savings Accounts.
Although the push for more affordable housing has been a consistent promise by Mayor Baraka, the housing that is available exacerbates the homeless problem. While there have been city ordinances that require developers to earmark a certain number of affordable housing, it is not mandated. Added, a 2017 report on Newark’s housing crisis said:
“Newark’s affordability crisis is propelled by a combination of housing supply and housing demand factors . . . Supply has been diminished by the lack of adequate public investment in new or renovated affordable housing; the cost of housing development that makes more expensive housing more profitable to build; the gradual loss of public housing units; and the effect of building and land use regulations in Newark and its region that further increase housing development costs.”
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Mayor Baraka is banking on the hundreds of properties the city owns as the sweet spot. In ongoing rounds of development, the aim seems to balance incoming new high-end development with renovations and buildups that align more with the economics of residents who are predominantly Black and Latino.
Last August, the city launched an online auction of the homes they owned. Before that, in 2015, Mayor Baraka carried out a program selling $1 “Love Lots” to couples who wanted to establish themselves in the city.
Mayor Barak’s efforts are a far cry from the previous mayor, now Senator Cory Booker, who brokered multi-million dollar deals with major investors to purchase large swaths of downtown real estate. One investor Ron Beit, who was called the “James Brown” of Newark development described the city as “abandoned” and “a blank canvas.” After the purchases, a large number of the local shopkeepers, street vendors and residents were pushed out. The current pandemic has almost expelled the rest.
With other initiatives such as the Newark FAM Fund, the Baraka Administration seeks to expand its accomplishments. The city reports that there are 5,818 more jobs in Newark, along with 2.736 million square feet of commercial space, and 2,004 units of housing which also include 929 affordable homes.
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