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United Way's Allendale project a model for affordable housing

By Harvy Lipman, NorthJersey.com

1536 days ago   Article ID# 516649
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Bergen County's United Way

HACKENSACK, NEW JERSEY (NorthJersey.com) - Later this month Bergen County's United Way will cut the ribbon on Orchard Commons, a set of apartments in Allendale for the developmentally disabled.

The six units represent the third affordable-housing project completed by the organization since it shifted its focus to addressing that need — but hardly the last. The United Way is on the verge of closing on another property in Allendale and is in advanced negotiations with officials in at least five other towns to develop projects.

"What I'm finding is a willingness to build low-income housing in many municipalities," said Tom Toronto, the United Way's president.

Toronto wouldn't name the communities with which the non-profit is talking because he doesn't have final commitments from them. But he said the potential developments include senior housing, town houses for purchase by low-income individuals with government subsidies and special-needs units for the developmentally disabled and other handicapped people.

The reason more towns haven't already moved forward is that in most cases the only developers interested in building affordable housing have been willing to do so only as part of much larger residential and commercial projects, Toronto said..

"The builders say, 'We'll build affordable housing, but you've got to take this Home Depot along with it,' " he explained. "Mayors and town councils are willing to build the affordable housing, but they're worried about the other growth and the costs that adds for schools and other municipal services. They have no clear-cut solution other than accepting those high density projects."

Until now.

Over the past several years the United Way has made affordable housing its top priority; creating a revolving fund to underwrite land acquisition and construction costs, establishing itself as a project developer (usually in conjunction with another non-profit, the Madeline Corp.) and sometimes acting as property manager.

The organization took on all those roles in developing Orchard Commons. It consists of six apartments (two one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom) for people with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to Asperger's syndrome — a form of autism that affects people of normal to high intelligence, causing them to lack many basic social skills.

The residents will live independently, but with on-site support part of the day provided by various agencies that serve the developmentally disabled.

"This lets us take care of our obligation to provide affordable housing and also do a wonderful thing for people," said Allendale Mayor Vincent Barra. "There are 6,000 developmentally disabled people around the state on waiting lists to get into independent housing. One person who's moving into one of the apartments is an Allendale resident whose mother's a widow, and he has been waiting 20 years for a place."

Having the United Way involved not only allowed the borough to take advantage of its expertise in dealing with the state and federal bureaucracies, the mayor added, it also spared Allendale taxpayers from having to cover any of the development costs.

"They brought some money to the table, so that in the early stages they were able to lay out funds," Barra said. "We didn't have to pass any ordinances to pay for engineering or hiring architects. This has been a very successful partnership."

So much so that the United Way is getting ready to close later this year on another Allendale property, which currently houses an asphalt business. That site, Toronto said, will include six town houses for sale to low-income families, six apartments for people with multiple sclerosis and 10 more units for the developmentally disabled.

"The United Way is fronting about half the cost," he said, with the remainder coming from state and federal subsidies.

"The great thing is that we're allowing the municipality to do this without them having a much larger development foisted on the community," Toronto added.

Barra agreed that having the United Way develop the projects allows the borough to avoid bringing in a private builder.

"We would have probably had to agree to let someone build 250 to 300 town houses to get the same number of affordable housing credits," the mayor said. "When I ran for office, I said we have a responsibility to provide this kind of housing. But we didn't want to simply do suburban sprawl. This is not only a home run, it's a grand slam."

A series of state Supreme Court rulings require every municipality in New Jersey to provide affordable housing. The number of units each town must create is currently established by the state Council on Affordable Housing. Under COAH's rules, communities get extra credits toward meeting their obligation by building housing designed for special-needs populations like the developmentally disabled, as well as extra state subsidies.

The governor's office and some legislative leaders have raised the prospect of eliminating COAH, but the Supreme Court edict that towns provide affordable housing would remain in place regardless.

Copyright 2014 NorthJersey.com   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 1536 days ago   Article ID# 516649

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