During New Jersey’s 2011 legislative session, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (the Network), an NLIHC state coalition partner, led the effort to protect funding for three state programs essential to addressing homelessness and housing affordability and availability. Republican Governor Chris Christie’s proposed FY12 budget threatened to increase homelessness in the state by cutting funds from the state’s General Assistance program and shifting money from the state’s housing trust fund to the general fund. Through organizing and a successful lobby day, advocates were able to lessen the blow of the proposed cuts and ensure the governor’s request to fully fund the State Rental Assistance Program (SRAP) was met.
The General Assistance program offers temporary assistance to single low income individuals for rental, mortgage or utility payment assistance, and transportation aid during an in-state housing search. Currently, people who qualify for the program are able to receive assistance for up to 18 months if they are classified as "employable", or able to work, and receive a stipend of $140 per month. People classified as "unemployable" receive assistance for up to 18 months and $210 a stipend of $210 per month stipend. Gov. Christie's initial FY12 budget proposed a cut of $31.5 million to this program. In addition, he proposed a 30-day delay of assistance, which, he claimed would give individuals time to look for employment, and a six-month delay before applicants could be classified as unemployable.
Advocates argued that these cuts would result in homelessness for many New Jersey residents, including people with disabilities, seniors and individuals looking for work, especially those re-entering communities after serving jail time. Network members and allies worked with their members during their May 19 Lobby Day to urge legislators and the governor to restore funding in the final budget for this program. Advocates were successful in avoiding a deep cut to the program with the final budget resulting in only a $7 million cut. The proposed 30-day wait for assistance is now discretionary, and the six-month delay before someone could receive the higher unemployable amount passed.
Advocates were also successful in their outreach to legislators to ensure full funding of SRAP, as requested in the Governor’s budget. SRAP provides vouchers for families and individuals in need of housing assistance. While they are pleased that the program was fully funded in the final budget, Network members were disappointed that much of the funding for the program was achieved by siphoning $25 million of housing production money from the state’s affordable housing trust fund.
Since Gov. Christie took office, he has diverted $23 million of dedicated funds from the New Jersey Affordable Housing Trust Fund to the general fund. For the third time, his budget recaptures dedicated resources from the trust fund and does not appropriate the full amount as required by state law. In addition to the funds allocated to SRAP, the State Treasurer announced that SRAP will be funded with $9 million of housing trust fund dollars, rather than with general fund money. There will be no revenue available from the trust fund this year or next to build or rehabilitate affordable homes in New Jersey. Language to prevent trust fund dollars from going to the general fund was included in the budget passed by the legislature, but was line-item vetoed by the governor.
Aside from the budget, Network members and allies succeeded in passing the Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act in the legislature. The act requires foreclosure consultants and distressed property purchasers, who contract with owners of residential properties in financial distress, to adhere to certain practices in providing foreclosure prevention services to owners. The bill was approved by the Senate (39-0) and the Assembly (77-0). The legislation now awaits Gov. Christie’s approval.
“We will continue to reach out to New Jersey’s legislators so that they are aware of what exactly is happening in the homes of their constituents,” said Staci Berger, director of policy and advocacy for the Network. “Investing in homes and jobs in environmentally appropriate places with access to transit by preserving the Trust Fund and funding SRAP is exactly what New Jersey’s economy needs right now. Build more homes people can afford and they'll have more in their pockets to invest in the local economy."
For more information contact, Arnold Cohen, Policy Coordinator, Housing and Development Network of New Jersey, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was edited from an earlier version to correct information on the GA program.