Low-income renters and tenants of color bear brunt of housing crisis, study finds

To comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment in Perth Amboy at the market rate of $1,850 per month, a family would have to earn $74,000. But the city, where 85% of residents are people of color and 20% of families live in poverty, has a median household income of $54,188.

In Passaic, a two-bedroom apartment costs on average about $1,700 a month — amounting to 103 hours of work a week at minimum wage to avoid being cost-burdened.

And residents in Elizabeth are seeing two-bedroom apartments at about $1,480 per month. For a family to live there comfortably, they’d need to earn $59,160 a year, nearly $8,000 more than the city’s median household income.

In one of the most expensive states in the country to live in, low-income residents and people of color are bearing the brunt of the housing crisis, according to a new study by Make the Road New Jerseyan immigration and labor activist organization based in Elizabeth.

And despite rent relief programs being available to all residents regardless of citizenship status, most renters surveyed for the study never applied for the assistance, and of the 32 people who applied, only nine received aid, according to the study.

For the study, the group interviewed 400 renters in the three cities between May and September.

In Elizabeth and Perth Amboy, renters reported being behind as much as $1,500 in rent, while Passaic tenants reported average arrearages as high as $2,000, according to the report. Most tenants also reported their landlords raised the rent each year since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

One Perth Amboy renter who received state rental aid told Make the Road that despite her landlord receiving rental assistance, he claims she still owes $8,800 and threats to evict her. She said the landlord keeps the conditions in the apartment deplorable to try to kick her out, but she cannot afford rent anywhere else.

“There are cockroaches and mice and a big hole in the floor. I fear for my health and my kids’ health,” she told interviewers.

About 20% of reported their living conditions were unsafe, unhealthy, or dangerous mostly in Passaic where a third of said their housing was unsafe. About half of the tenants who said they lived in dangerous conditions said their landlords refused to make repairs. Another 7% of tenants reported bullying and harassment from their landlords, the report states.

And a “significant number” of tenants are forgoing paying for food in order to make rent, according to Make the Road.

“In New Jersey’s most tenant-rich cities, renters are faced with impossible decisions – whether to pay for this month’s rent or to put food on the table for their families. Loss of wages, inflation, and rent increases are creating a crisis for renters, with between one-third to more than one-half struggling to pay for rent,” the study says.

according to US Census Bureau data, the three cities comprise mostly renters. Elizabeth’s housing is nearly 75% renter-occupied; in Perth Amboy, nearly 70% of residents are renters; and in Passaic, which has one of the highest renter populations in the state, roughly 78% of residents rent.

In Elizabeth, roughly 60% of residents surveyed by Make the Road reported facing difficulties paying rent, and nearly 40% have had difficulty paying for food. About 44% of Passaic had trouble paying rent, with one-third reporting hardships in buying food. And in Perth Amboy, 35% of people responded they had trouble paying rent, and one in four faced difficulty paying for food.

Changes advocates want to see

Make the Road says the state needs a “visionary housing policy” to protect families from displacement.

It is urging the three cities to enact rent freezes and strengthen rent control laws, which they say would help preserve affordable housing stock and protect low-income tenants from being pushed out of their homes. There is no statewide rent control law in New Jersey, which leaves the issue up to each municipality.

Elizabeth’s rent control laws put in place during the pandemic expire at the end of the year, while Passaic’s already expired. Perth Amboy, which has rent control laws that bar landlords from raising rent more than 5% annually, is weighing lowering the amount to 3% at a council meeting Wednesday.

The organization also wants to see Perth Amboy increase its enforcement of habitability laws — the right of tenants to live in a safe home with repairs made in a reasonable amount of time. It is urging the city to start tracking complaints by building and to develop repercussions for landlords who are repeat offenders of habitability violations.

Officials from the three cities did not respond to requests for comment.

And the group is calling on state and local officials to reopen rental relief programs and target outreach to immigrants and low-income residents. Two rounds of COVID relief programs funded by the CARES Act were exhausted, and a recent round of state rental aid helped 4,000 residents, although more than 86,000 people applied.

The state is sitting on about $1 billion of American Rescue Plan funds, which Make the Road said should be used to meet the need of thousands of tenants who are struggling to pay rent.

“Municipalities and the state can increase rental assistance programs and streamline applications so that the individuals most in need — who are too often left behind — can have access,” the report states. “These actions will put our cities and our state on a path towards greater racial, economic, and gender equality.”

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