Rutgers Study Reveals the Most Effective Ways NJ Cities Responded During COVID Housing Crisis

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Newark, New Jersey - The New Jersey State Policy Lab at Rutgers University released a study of challenges faced by local governments seeking to quickly distribute emergency rental assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the city of Newark as a success story.

Although housing shortages and evictions were a problem before March of 2020, they became a crisis when lockdowns and shuttered businesses resulted in job and income loss, an impact that has been especially severe in urban communities.

"The pandemic revealed what is an ongoing emergency for far too many New Jerseyans,” said David Troutt, founding director of the Newark-based Rutgers Center of Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME), and lead author of this study.

The report focuses on the efforts of five municipalities to disperse federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds: Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Elizabeth, and Camden.

“The structural issues revealed by the pandemic are the supply and demand housing problems in metropolitan areas across the country,” said Troutt. “What the pandemic yielded was a crisis in the demand side because so many people who were already housing insecure, or housing unstable, lost their jobs.”

The research shines a light on the disproportionate impact the housing crisis has on residents of color, larger households, and households with children. These disparities are comparably worse in New Jersey than the rest of the country.

According to the most recent Census data, 393,000 New Jersey households were delinquent in rent -- a total of 22 percent of renter-occupied units -- compared to the national rate of nearly 16 percent. Additionally, 39 percent of renters in New Jersey who identify as Black report being behind on rent, compared to 26 percent of Latinx, 19 percent of Asians, and  11 percent of whites.

“We found astonishing affordability gaps. These are also the places where most people don’t assume that housing is particularly unaffordable because an area is low-to-moderate income. But because peoples’ financial resources are so limited — and made more fragile by the pandemic — this is an ongoing crisis of affordability, and the impact will be felt disproportionately by minorities,” said Troutt.

During the pandemic, urban municipalities were faced with the unprecedented task of quickly dispersing rental assistance during a worldwide public health crisis. The study evaluated what worked and what didn’t, using an organizational lens to examine how local governments were able to adapt.

The success stories included collaborative efforts with local nonprofits and civic agencies, along with strategic outreach to tenants through printable flyers and postcards, social media graphics, lists of community partners, document checklists, and access to public presentations for support.

Newark was a standout for its ability to quickly recognize obstacles and overcome them. The city partnered with consulting group Ernst & Young to run the city’s web portal and digital strategy and was the only one of the five cities to allocate all its funding, which amounted to  $20 million.

“Department heads and city staff realized they didn’t have the capacity to record and understand the metrics of distribution. And rather than trying to push through and hope for the best, they sought outside assistance,’’ said Troutt. “It really was a case of taking stock of one’s own capacity.”

Not every municipality in the study performed as well. Jersey City has drawn criticism for opening its application portal for a total of only four weeks since August and rejecting early applicants in an attempt to serve the lowest-income residents first. Union County has only spent five percent of the more than $21 million it received, with the study citing confusion over the county’s website process and no mention of ERAP on the City of Elizabeth’s web pages.

However, there has been progress. Camden County and Mercer County are both actively processing applications thanks to well-structured and clear portals and processes, according to the study.

The study provides hope that municipalities can learn to respond more efficiently during a housing crisis and also emphasizes the great impact of programs like ERAP.

“I hope that the study helps to expand discourse about the affordable housing crisis in cities,” said Troutt. “There is a tendency to think first about production and preservation of affordable housing as a way to build supply sufficient to meet the increasing demand. What the ERAP showed is that there is another way: feed the demand side so that families have more purchasing power in this very difficult housing market.”