For thousands in N.J. with special needs, wait for housing can be endless

Soon, it would be time to start making dinner, but 59-year-old Mindy Norlian had a story to tell.

“I’ve been divorced 22 years,” she explained last week at the kitchen table of her Cherry Hill home, “and I raised both my girls on my own.”

Moments later, footsteps sounded on the stairs, and an unsmiling young woman appeared in the hallway. Thin, with a narrow head and faraway gaze, she approached Norlian, thrust out a DVD, and made urgent-sounding noises.

Norlian smiled up at her 33-year-old daughter. Profoundly disabled as the result of a missing or damaged chromosome, Rebecca cannot speak, dress, or feed herself, and still wears diapers.

In 1999, her mother put Rebecca’s name on a state waiting list for affordable housing.

Eighteen years later, she is still waiting.

An additional 4,546 New Jersey residents are also on the Division of Developmental Disabilities’ housing waiting list. In a Mercer County courtroom, meanwhile, lawyers are arguing over what role municipalities should play in shortening that list.

It is a debate Rebecca will never understand.

“OK, Beck,” Norlian said, glancing at the square of plastic in her hand. “Want me to put on Muppets?”

Rebecca smiled, leaned down to nuzzle her mother’s cheek, and made happy guttural sounds as Norlian rose to escort her back to the DVD player in her bedroom.

It was a sequence that would repeat itself many times over the next hour, just as it does every day, and will likely do for many years to come - until the day, said Norlian, “when I won’t be here anymore.”

There is no broad agreement on how many people with “special needs” - a category that includes disabled veterans, the homeless, the mentally ill, and the developmentally disabled - will need supportive housing in the decade ahead.

But advocates for this population agree that demand far outstrips supply.

“One way of looking at it is that there are 120,000 adults with all different kinds of disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income of about $800 a month,” said Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Association. “But there’s just 40,000 affordable-housing units.”

In a Mercer County courtroom, in a case that began in January, Brielle lawyer Jeffrey R. Surenian is arguing on behalf of five townships that their “Mount Laurel”-type affordable-housing obligations should not have to include the “extremely” poor - people  earning less than about $12,000 - because they cannot afford even subsidized rents after paying for food and other living costs.

Surenian’s argument, based on a 2015 report for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, has incensed affordable-housing advocates, and especially advocates for people with special needs.

“It’s a pile of garbage,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “It’s so illogical it’s insulting.”

“It’s extremely troubling,” said Riley.

“How can you be too poor to afford affordable housing?” asked Anthony Campisi, spokesman for the Fair Share Housing Center. The center, which has special intervenor status in affordable-housing litigation statewide, has called on state Superior Court Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson in Mercer County to reject the argument.

“These municipalities are denying that this need is something they have to respond to,” Kevin Walsh, Fair Share’s executive director and lead counsel, said last week.

“The argument they’re making - strangely - is that the private sector on its own cannot meet these needs, and, therefore, that no one should have to. It’s a bizarre and cruel approach.”

Surenian insists, however, that Walsh and others are misrepresenting his argument.

“We’re not saying we shouldn’t be building for people with special needs," he said. "We’re saying the numbers are such that you can’t satisfy it with inclusionary zoning,” the traditional method towns use to meet their affordable-housing obligations. Townships grant private developers permits to build high-density housing provided that they set aside 20 percent of units for low- and middle-income households.

“We’re asking the judge to look at this as a compliance technique,” said Surenian. “We’re saying, 'Look, developers won’t build for people who have no income.' Not for people earning 20 percent” of the state median income, which is the threshold definition of “extremely poor.”

Another way to create special-needs housing is for nonprofit organizations to build group homes with federal tax credits awarded by the state. They pass these on to their builders, who may sell them or apply them annually over 20 years against their federal income tax obligations. The revenues then pay for construction of the facility.

But with the supply of credits lately averaging just $18 million a year in New Jersey, the process is an uncertain one, says Jennifer Dubrow Weiss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.

The federation hopes this year to start building a $22 million, 160-unit special-needs residence on Springdale Road in Cherry Hill. Seventy-five percent of the units would be for seniors, and the remainder for those with developmental disabilities, such as Rebecca Norlian.

“We’re very excited,” Weiss said. “We’ve gotten all the other approvals we need, but we won’t know if we get the tax credits until early summer.” Cherry Hill Township and Camden County have each pledged $500,000, Weiss said, if the project proceeds.

The federation will face fierce competition for the credits it needs, said Brad Molotsky, a real estate lawyer and partner at the law firm of Duane Morris. The father of a 23-year-old with cognitive disabilities, Molotsky specializes in inclusionary housing and is advising the federation on the application process.

“The state gets enough to fund 10 to 12 projects, but they’ll probably get 30 to 40 applications,” Molotsky said. “So they have a scorecard, a checklist of the things they want to see in a development. If you get maybe a 94, forget it; you need a 99 or 100.”

On Feb. 27 the Assembly's housing and community development approved a bill that calls for making $600 million in tax credits available to developers to build affordable housing projects, with at least half the units targeted to low-income households, and 13-percent for the "very" poor.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Voorhees), a co-sponsor of the bill,  last week said there was a need to "incentivize" builders to create affordable housing. The bill is now in the Assembly appropriations committee. Lampitt said it was unclear if Gov. Christie would sign it reaches his desk, but that it was a "way of raising awareness"  of the housing needs of the poor and disabled. 

Although Norlian wants to keep caring for Rebecca at home, she is eager to see the federation break ground on its project.

“She’s my daughter, and I love her,” she said. “But when I’m gone, she’s going to need someone to make sure she’s clean and fed and healthy and safe.”

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