Like many New Jersey towns, South Orange and Maplewood are embroiled in a decades-long conflict over affordable housing obligations. Here’s what will happen next.

SOUTH ORANGE AND MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Melissa Wood feels South Orange is shifting away from affordability and toward opulent apartments charging extravagant rents. She and fellow Academy Heights neighbors, who are “an integrated mix of racial, cultural, age and economic backgrounds,” according to the Vision for Valley mission statement, worry about the “non-conforming” developments headed to the Valley Street corridor.

They mainly find concern with the Seton Hall student apartments planned for the former All Star Motors site on Valley Street. While developers have scaled down plans from 64 units to 51, Wood believes an opportunity for mixed-incoming housing will be squandered on students who represent “a very narrow margin of the population.” 

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“Developers are coming to South Orange because they see an opportunity here to build and make money off of our town,” Wood said. “I think we need to set a really high bar for these developers who want to build here. They are coming into our community and we need to make sure what they’re building reflects the values of our community that is inclusive of people from all economic backgrounds.”

The Vision for Valley mission statement criticizes the “ad hoc, piecemeal approval process” of the latest Valley Street projects. The apparent disconnect between citizens and developers is precisely what the latest South Orange Master Plan aims to solve. The future Master Plan will serve as a “blueprint for achieving the community’s desired future,” according to a June 8 announcement by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum. The village will likely adopt the adjusted plan in December 2018.

South Orange has not attempted to produce a “comprehensive” Master Plan since the 1970s, Collum said in the announcement. South Orange Village Trustee Mark Rosner said he is unsure how the reformed Master Plan will incorporate affordable housing since it is a static document, while the housing market itself is “political” and unpredictable.

“It’s a constantly-moving target we’re trying to hit,” Rosner said. “We need to make sure we keep adding units on a regular basis to make sure we stay on some kind of target.”

The Value of Transit-Oriented Housing

As towns adjacent to a robust transit system, South Orange and Maplewood can connect low- and middle-income individuals to job and education opportunities. Cars are not financially inclusive nor necessary to travel to work, said former South Orange Village President Alex Torpey. Torpey wants to change the way we govern towns, particularly in creating inclusive transit-oriented communities. He called for more bike and walking paths in South Orange during his tenure, according to his website, as well as biodiesel commuter jitneys.

“Affordable housing isn’t the only aspect of the solution,” he said. “You also need access to the train, you need the ability to not own a car, you need to be able to walk to things like a grocery store or a restaurant or job or school. All those things need to be taken into account for you to actually do it the right way.”

Such access benefits New Jersey’s diverse spectrum of financially-assisted households. The demographics vary most widely in renter household size. Large and small households compose nearly even portions of all assisted renters, according to a 2014 New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (NJDCA) report. The NJDCA defines large households as containing five or more members and small households as two to four members.

Elderly households constitute over 19 percent of these renters. In SOMA, the demand for senior housing more than doubles. Assisted living facilities made up over half of the area’s affordable units in 2015, according to NJDCA data. South Orange and Maplewood acknowledged its growing senior community and established the Two Towns for All Ages initiative in 2017, which supports elderly residents choosing to remain in the SOMA community.

Building more affordable senior housing in South Orange and Maplewood will be a challenge, said Two Towns for All Ages Coordinator Cathy Rowe. SOMA is constrained for space and faces high property taxes, she said, so advocates need to think creatively. Apartments offer the best solution since the majority of existing housing stock contain hazards like stairs.

Rowe tries to advertise local HUD-subsidized apartments like the B’nai B'rith building on South Orange Avenue, encouraging residents to apply for their waiting lists. It can take years to receive a spot, she said. She has also observed empty nesters rent out rooms to bring in extra cash, particularly with recent property tax hikes. Seton Hall students and New York City commuters have rented extra rooms from seniors, she said, providing a solution for both young and old.

As the towns move forward with affordable housing plans, Rowe wants planners to consider the needs of elderly individuals.

“Part of the reason South Orange is so desirable is because of the people who built this community,” she said. “There are some people in their eighties and they have lived here their entire life. They have seen the community change and they love the changes they’ve seen. We want them to stay here.”

Low-income residents with disabilities also benefit from SOMA’s resources. As of 2015, about 18 percent of the area’s affordable units were dedicated to disability housing. Local organizations like the JESPY House offer residential services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

New Jersey as a whole requires more special needs housing, particularly as the disabled population ages. People with disabilities generally encounter “gigantic” waitlists for subsidized housing, said Fair Share Housing Center spokesman Anthony Campisi.

Over 160,000 New Jersey residents between the ages of 18 and 64 face challenges while living independently, according to a New Jersey State Health Assessment report. Individuals with disabilities also experience higher unemployment rates regardless of education level, a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics press release said.

“If you’re the parent of an adult with disabilities, your child can be on a waitlist for 15 or 20 years before they get a spot,” Campisi said. “You’re constantly worried that if something were to happen to you, there’d be no place for your child to go.”

What’s next for SOMA’s affordable housing

With the help of the Fair Share Housing Center, local New Jersey officials have pressured for-profit developers to include affordable units within their borders. Qualifying families can therefore avoid the stigma attached to public housing and raise their children in an economically diverse environment, Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca said. The fairly new concept of inclusionary developments has only reached its infancy in South Orange and Maplewood.

While the developers behind Maplewood’s new Clarus Building donated to the town’s trust fund in 2017, during the previous year Third & Valley developer Jonathan Rose Companies designated 21 affordable housing units out of the total 215. The property’s HUD waitlist stretched between 1,400 and 2,000 individuals, Rosner said.

The Avalon Maplewood, another recent luxury development to hit SOMA, opened in May 2018 with a mere six affordable units out of the total 235. The potential Hub Realty project on South Orange Avenue and Vose would also fall below the threshold, aiming to provide about 10 percent affordable units.

Just two of SOMA’s new inclusionary apartments meet the standard 15-to-20 percent affordable unit range now followed by many New Jersey towns. Both were built in 2013, two years before the landmark Fair Share Housing court case. Maplewood Crossing devotes about 13 percent of its 126 units to affordable rentals, according to the Maplewood Housing Element & Fair Share Plan. The three-unit Boyden Ave Family Rental sets aside one unit, technically 33 percent of its total.

Still, these new complexes mark a step forward by offering transit-accessible affordable units. Maplewood has already laid out a blueprint for the future of its affordable housing stock, setting higher standards for developers.

Maplewood will finalize its legal settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center this September, according to an Aug. 7 Township Committee meeting agenda. The town’s new Housing Element & Fair Share Plan details the unmet affordable housing needs and lists strategies to meet these obligations. The plan prioritizes inclusionary mixed-income developments like Third & Valley, demanding that rentals compose over a quarter of all new affordable units. Half of these rentals will be reserved for families.

Nearly $800,000 from Maplewood’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund will cover the local housing rehabilitation program, rental assistance for families moving to new apartments and an “administration and homeownership program” for income-eligible families.

The latter initiative will target foreclosed homes “and/or homes being sold for below market rates,” the agenda said. The homeownership program will produce only two affordable homes “due to the high land values in Maplewood,” according to the new Housing Element & Fair Share Plan.

Maplewood’s Housing Element & Fair Share Plan also establishes a Mandatory Set-Aside Ordinance, requiring developers to set aside 20 percent of new units as “sale affordable” and 15 percent of units as “rental affordable” in rezoned or redeveloped projects.

Meanwhile, a new assisted living facility will push Maplewood toward the highest Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) certification for affordable senior housing. The development slated for Boyden Avenue will feature 182 units, the plan said, with half the apartments dedicated to Medicaid recipients.

As for South Orange, Anthony Campisi said he could not comment on ongoing negotiations with the municipal government, adding that South Orange has a “good history” of meeting its fair housing obligations” is hopeful a settlement will soon be reached.

Past and present officials agree, if anything, that mixed-income housing improves communities. Alex Torpey has served both the South Orange and Bergen County administrations and finds value in integrating families across incomes.

“There’s no issue with incorporating affordable housing into market-rate housing,” Torpey said. “It doesn’t diminish the value of the market-rate housing at all. And for many people, including most people in South Orange and Maplewood, it’s actually a benefit. By living in a building like that...you’re helping contribute to the town being diverse as it is.”

DeLuca urges nearby towns with meager — or zero — affordable options to ramp up their efforts. They also have a responsibility to provide affordable housing, he said, and can alleviate the approximately 5,000-family waiting list for SOMA’s inclusionary properties.

South Orange and Maplewood can institute individual policies, DeLuca said, but “decent housing” is a universal right. Inclusionary developments bring us closer to that goal.

“One of the things about the affordable housing units is from the outside you can’t tell a difference,” DeLuca said. “People use the same doors, they use the same garages, the kids play together...I think that’s very positive for a society.”

This article concludes a two-part series on affordable housing in SOMA. Click here to read "A Constantly-Moving Target Part 1: How SOMA Has Fared in Affordable Housing."

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