Al Pelham of the Montclair Branch of the NAACP and Chris Napierala of the Montclair Justice Coalition hosted a Community Forum on Affordable Housing for local residents on April 11 at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park.
The forum was sponsored by the Justice Coalition and featured a four-person panel comprising 4th Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, MD; Steven Cooper, Senior Mortgage Banker at Alterra Home Loans in Jersey City; Deirdre Malloy, Property Compliance Manager at HomeCorp; and William Scott, Chair of the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee and Co-Chair of the Montclair Housing Commission.
Councilwoman Baskerville began her comments by discussing the Mt. Laurel decision regarding affordable housing, and saying that Montclair had gone “above and beyond” in their efforts to provide affordable housing. However, she pointed out that with new housing coming into Montclair with rents from $2000-$4000, there is concern about how this will affect people who have historically lived in the township’s low and moderate-income neighborhoods.
She also discussed gentrification, saying that it’s “not necessarily an all-bad thing,” as it sometimes serves a need for economic stimulus. “Some people feel some types of gentrification can be a positive thing. But people who’ve been in Montclair for decades, and whose families have shaped the township and given their all for generations, they may not be able to afford to live in their neighborhoods.” She questioned whether this trend would “push black and brown people out of their community.”
Referring to new, upscale shops coming in to the area, she asked how this would affect the community if they push out small groceries or community centers. “There’s no short answer to any of these questions – there’s no right or wrong – but it does mean bringing people together who care about it,” she stated.
Baskerville also pointed out that many people say they want to keep the “character of the community,” but that her constituents feel the new developments are “wiping out the character of the community” to achieve other goals.
She said that for affordable units that would be required under COAH (Council on Affordable Housing), Montclair would be one of several towns within a certain region and the units would be part of a pool in that region rather than focusing on Montclair residents.
“What we’re trying to do is… if we don’t have to come under that region for creating affordable housing, what do we have to do as a township to provide affordable housing for teachers, firefighters, police and township employees so they can stay here, thrive, live where they work,” she said.
Baskerville said the new developments in the township all have a certain number of affordable units and that affordable units should be spread throughout the township, not only in the 4th Ward. In addition, she said the township owns four lots on Wildwood Terrace and in the Brookdale Park area that have been designated for affordable/moderate income residency.
William Scott spoke next, crediting his involvement with affordable housing in Montclair to Councilwoman Baskerville, who he said nominated him to be on the Housing Commission eight years ago.
He recalled a study done by a consultant in 2012 to evaluate how much affordable housing Montclair would require. The results showed a need for 4000 units; however, the consultant recommended a more realistic 1800-1900 units. So far, Scott estimated about 630 affordable units have been built.
He said although the COAH requirements for affordable housing that followed the Mt. Laurel decisions have been in litigation for the past 15 years, “Montclair has basically been a leader in affordable housing. However, from a moral standpoint, there’s always room for improvement.”
Scott stated that, although it is still unknown what Montclair’s final legal obligation for affordable housing will be, “The township is going to step up and provide a 10% obligation for Montclair residents.” Therefore, in a development such as the Seymour Street development or the development planned for Lackawanna Plaza, 10% of the units will be affordable units set aside for Montclair residents. Scott also added there are a number of smaller developments that will be coming into the township in the next 3-5 years which will provide additional affordable units.
Steven Cooper of Alterra Home Loans discussed FHA mortgages and other opportunities for home ownership. He explained that his role is to ensure that a buyer won’t be a “quick default.” He said they have to analyze “everything about a client….The worst thing I can do is have somebody buy a house and they call me up 3-6 months later and say they can’t make the payment,” he explained.
Cooper went into detail about some of the challenges facing mortgage lenders. He said before the recession, people weren’t as challenged economically, whereas now there are people who are working 2-3 jobs. This makes it more difficult to qualify the clients, he explained, since some are part-time jobs. In addition, if a client requires a co-signer, this has to be taken into consideration.
Cooper said his firm was one of the few that still maintains 100% financed FHA mortgages (requiring no money down).
He emphasized that potential buyers should not ignore houses that are in disrepair and need work. He cited an example of a client who bought a house for $150k and obtained a $190k rehab mortgage to have money left for repairing the house. Once the repairs were complete, the after-repair home value was $250k, giving the buyer built-in equity from the start. Cooper also suggested buyers consider two-family affordable homes so that one side can be rented out to a tenant at an affordable rent.
Deirdre Malloy of HomeCorp explained the process by which residents could access their services.
“When someone comes in there’s a certain required process they have to go through to lease an apartment or if they are already a tenant, to recertify,” she explained.
She said there is a focused attention to ensure that people understand budgeting, credit ratings, and how to repair their credit. There is also a landlord-tenant counseling service.
“There is a foreclosure piece, where we have people who have million dollar homes that come for help, and people who are working class individuals,” she said, pointing out that everybody can have financial problems or hardships, such as the loss of a loved one, a job, or a medical situation. She said HomeCorp works with people, helps them with their applications, and refers them to other organizations if they have a situation that HomeCorp cannot address.
She told the audience that if they are having trouble paying their mortgage, they should come to HomeCorp before it becomes an emergency. They can help clients understand how to speak to realtors, know what questions to ask and what steps to take.
She also urged residents to bring their issues to the Housing Commission. “The Housing Commission meeting is open to the public. If you have an agenda item or serious concern regarding housing, bring it to us. Have a plan or at least have an issue that is really pressing, and we will discuss it and make suggestions as to next steps.”
The panel also discussed Piazza & Associates, which is the affordable housing administrator that processes the applications for Montclair and for every developer that has to adhere to the affordable housing guidelines. There is a waiting list, so the first step for a potential renter or buyer is to fill out a preliminary application on their website.
Piazza is currently administering affordable Montclair rental units in the residential buildings at Valley & Bloom, 24 Elm Street, Montclair Residences at Bay Street Station, as well as the various rental units under HomeCorp’s purview. They also offer affordable housing for purchase in several locations in town.
The panel discussion was followed by a Q & A session. Audience members asked fairly specific questions about their own situations, as well as questions of a more general nature.
One resident asked what the word “affordable” specifically means. Steven Cooper responded, saying the affordable housing cost is based on 30% of median income for low income housing, and 50% for moderate income housing.
“People think affordable housing means people who aren’t working,” he said. He explained they can be working in good jobs and still not be able to afford housing. He also said the amount considered affordable depends on the area in which they live. Median incomes in areas in Alpine or Chatham are higher, and therefore the housing costs considered affordable would be at a higher level.
He and William Scott also pointed out the lack of tenant turnover as a limiting force for available affordable rental units.
In response to questions about the potential for a rent control ordinance in Montclair, Councilwoman Baskerville said she had “floated” the idea in the past, and agreed that with new developments coming in that are high end, it has a trickle-down effect.
Earlier, she had also proposed an idea that if a new residential development is being built in a designated “Area in Need of Redevelopment,” perhaps rents could be restrained to be more in line with those in the nearby neighborhood, and thus better maintain neighborhood character.
Al Pelham wrapped up the meeting with a call to action for the audience, urging them to hold their elected officials accountable and encouraging them to get involved in the process.
Chris Napierale reminded the public to pick up the many informational handouts available and announced two upcoming events. He said the first will be a working session of the Montclair Justice Coalition to be held on Saturday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Wally Choice Community Center, and on Sunday, April 30, a Community Potluck supper at the same location from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.