Letters: Pandemic has laid bare structural challenges faced by many lower-income households

To the Editor:

For more than 15 years, Housing Initiatives of Princeton (HIP) has embraced the idea of “neighbors helping neighbors” to ensure that Princeton is a diverse community where low-income families can thrive. We remain ever thankful for the many neighbors who have helped us in that effort. As everyone in our community has responded to the myriad challenges posed by COVID-19, we have received significant support from the town through its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, foundations, businesses, congregations, and individuals. With this support, we have been able to help more than 160 households in and around Princeton ― the vast majority of which include young children― evade eviction during the economic fallout from the pandemic.

As we acknowledge this support and the benefits it has produced, we also feel compelled to acknowledge the structural challenges that the pandemic has laid bare and call for systemic changes to address them. Long before COVID-19 disrupted our lives and economy, there was a significant shortage of rental homes available to the 26 percent of New Jersey renter households that are extremely low-income – earning at or below the federal poverty line or 30 percent of their area median income. Nearly 3 out of 4 of such households pay more than 30 percent of their household income in housing costs, making them less likely to be able to afford other basic needs like food, healthcare, and educational supports, and more likely to face eviction. Increasing the number of affordable housing units can help address this challenge, and the emerging plans for new affordable housing in town and across the state are signs of progress that HIP welcomes and supports.

Another systemic challenge we face is that posed by restrictions on how the federal CDBG funds can be distributed. These funds, provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can temporarily cover rental payments for households that are struggling as a result of the pandemic. Payments go directly to landlords. The vast majority of landlords have shown a willingness to negotiate lower payments with HIP in the midst of this crisis. In order to qualify for this assistance, the applicant must be named on a valid lease. Many of our neighbors, especially those with undocumented status, are not named on their household leases despite contributing towards rental payments and are, therefore, not eligible for assistance. Although lacking documentation, undocumented immigrants contribute more than $500 million in taxes annually in New Jersey ― more than $31 million in Mercer County alone. Yet, they are not eligible for any of the state and federal relief in response to the pandemic. HIP believes that an applicant should be able to provide a statement signed by the leaseholder to whom they are paying rent, stipulating their address and monthly contribution towards rent.

HIP wants to ensure that policymakers at the state and federal level ― and the voters who send them there ― understand just how vulnerable many of our neighbors are. We are encouraged by the fact that recent guidelines for rental assistance from the U.S. Treasury enable applicants to self-attest in cases where they do not have standard documentation. Public policies should not impose requirements that make them ineligible for vital supports that help meet basic needs and also protect the public health of the broader community.

Carol Golden for the board of Housing Initiatives of Princeton