March 3, 2021

HIP Calls for Systemic Changes to Address Challenges Faced by Low-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 thankful for the many neighbors who have helped us in that effort. During the  COVID-19 crisis, we’ve 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 with young children — evade eviction during the pandemic. 

As we acknowledge this support and the benefits it has produced, we also need 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. Nearly 3/4 of such households pay more than 30 percent of their household income in housing costs, making it challenging for them to afford other basic needs like food, health care, and educational supports, and more likely to face eviction. Increasing the number of affordable housing units can help address this challenge, and the emerging Princeton plans for new affordable housing are signs of progress that HIP welcomes. 

Another systemic challenge is in the form of restrictions on how the federal CDBG funds can be distributed. These HUD funds can temporarily cover rental payments for struggling households. 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 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 pandemic relief. HIP believes that  providing a statement signed by the leaseholder to whom they are paying rent, stipulating their address and monthly contribution towards rent, should suffice.

HIP wants to ensure that policymakers at the state and federal level — and the voters who send them there —  understand 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
Chair, on behalf of the Board of Housing Initiatives of Princeton
Mercer Street