NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - New Jersey Television (NJTV) was here this past week for a community forum focusing on housing and quality of life in New Brunswick.
The town hall was part of NJTV’s annual In Your Neighborhood Series, where the statewide television network focuses a lens on different communities across New Jersey. In previous segments, NJTV was in Asbury Park, Camden and Trenton.
The structure of the community forum was a three-person panel, moderated by NJTV news correspondent Michael Hill.
On the panel were Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Poling at Rutgers, Staci Berger from Housing and Community Development Network of NJ, and Teresa Viva, executive director of Lazos America Unida
Also in the audience, although not sitting up front as a panelist in the front of the room, were Jamie Santiago, executive director of New Brunswick Tomorrow, and Karen Blumenfield, executive director of Global Advisers on Smoke Free Policy.
The talk was about housing.
It hasn’t been a secret that rent has gone up across the board in New Brunswick, but the question is whether tenants get their money's worth for what they pay.
“To be honest, I think a huge problem the community has is the quality of the housing compared with the price of the rent is not equal. It’s a disastrously huge difference,” Vivar said.
Tenants who want the landlords to address unsafe or unhealthy issues in the apartment might not do so, out of fear of some kind of reprisal, according to Berger, a long-time local activist from her days at Rutgers in the early 1990s.
For one, the tenant could be penalized through a kind of “blacklisting” among landlords, where the person simply won’t be accepted for an apartment application anywhere else, she noted.
With many tenants undocumented, and a presidential administration set on removing any such persons from the country, landlords have used the political climate to their advantage, Berger claimed.
“ICE is very active in New Brunswick, and if you report a bad landlord, there’s a very real fear that somebody’s going to come to your door and pick you up,” Berger said. “And if you have small children, or children of any kind, you’re just not going to take that chance.”
Koning notes there is a survey done by Eagleton every four years, interviewing New Brunswick residents on their attitudes about the city.
Nearly half the residents polled said they would move out of the city given the chance, according to Koning, while another 17 percent said they’d prefer to move to another part of the city.
“It’s affordability, it’s cleaner streets, it’s better rent and better housing options,” Koning said, although crime and safety has come squarely in first place.
The survey reported crime and safety as a common theme from residents asked on what needs to be improved.
“They want to know that it’s safe at night, on the street that they’re roaming around, on the streets that they live on or in their neighborhood,” Koning said.
The urge to get out of New Brunswick isn’t unique to the city, Koning said.
“It's been something with residents statewide, that residents are kind of dissatisfied. They don’t think the state is going on the right track and quality of life is down,” Koning said.
Many of the programs meant for community development have existed for some time, Berger said, but in recent years, funding for those programs has been raided by Gov. Chris Christie's administration to plug holes in the state budget.
One notable example has been the lead prevention fund, according to Berger, where the $10 million earmarked for the fund was diverted to the general state treasury.
With bad living conditions and no way out, the health toll has become evident for many residents, she said.
About a quarter of respondents in Koning’s survey reported that they or someone in their household had asthma, another quarter reported diabetes and another quarter reported obesity.
“Really a new one for us that we started asking about, we addressed mental health, and actually 28 percent of residents say that somebody in their household is dealing with some sort of depression,” Koning said.
The toll has also been evident on education, Berger said.
“If you’re a mom and you’ve got three kids, who are cold and in unsafe housing conditions, they’re not going to do real well in school,” Berger said. “So if you have a stable home that you can afford and you have some place that keep the lights on at night. I mean, there are kids doing homework with no lights.”
Many community-betterment programs meant to address these issues aren’t rated for their effectiveness, according to Vivar, or they might not be used by residents who don’t even know about them, or they might not have been developed with input from local residents
“Not many organizations do the follow-up if these proposals are effective or not, and that’s a problem,” Vivar said. “A lot of money has been given to non-profit organizations and even resources to other institutions to improve the life, but what if the community doesn’t know anything about it.”
The disconnection Vivar spoke of involves existing programs in the city, the county, the state and Rutgers University.
“All of this research has been misplaced, or left out, or even grants that the city has received. Nobody has been using because they don’t know how to make the application forms,” Vivar said.