Calls for Change in Housing Policies
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 US 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 policy makers 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 US 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.
The Board of Housing Initiatives of Princeton
33 Mercer Street, Princeton
At the Princeton Community Housing (PCH) virtual event on February 24, Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., author of “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s Urgent America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” proposed a new kind of social contract for Princeton.
This social contract was discussed by Dr. Glaude and Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, Pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Trustee of PCH. Dr. Glaude spoke about the need to shift the frame and recognize that social and moral justice is not a philanthropic or charitable enterprise. Racial equality is not something that we give – we need to talk to one another and address this together. He encouraged the Princeton community to assert a different kind of moral and social contract between its citizens. Dr. Glaude expressed this contract as a broad, public infrastructure of care that is focused on addressing basic needs such as housing, healthcare and mental health services, education, and jobs.
PCH organized this discussion to raise awareness of the need to confront racial injustice and to raise funds for PCH’s COVID 19 Emergency Rent Relief Fund to support PCH residents who have been economically impacted by the pandemic. Since June 2020, PCH has provided a total of 63 months of rent relief.
We are immensely grateful to Dr. Glaude, who not only contributed his time to the event but also made a very generous personal donation to the Emergency Rent Relief Fund. We also would like to extend our gratitude and appreciation to Rev. Mjumbe for contributing his time, knowledge, and the local perspective that guided the conversation. This included raising questions asked by attendees, speaking about the Princeton community, including our past and current shortcomings in racial equality, and drawing parallels between Paul Robeson and James Baldwin.
This event would not have been possible without the more than 120 supporters of PCH who attended and contributed over $16,000 to the Covid-19 Emergency Rent Relief Fund. Thank you! Please go to www.PCHHomes.org if you wish to support the Relief Fund.
Dr. Glaude closed the event by stating that an infrastructure of care is a framework that has to happen across the country, but that there is no better place to begin that process than a town like Princeton. PCH looks forward to continuing to work collaboratively with our community to build this infrastructure.
Executive Director, Princeton Community Housing, on behalf of the Board of Trustees
Spring Is Coming
And how can we look at our yards through the lens of decreasing our turf areas?
Why? Because nationwide they consume 8 billion gallons of water daily; 40 percent of the chemicals sprayed on lawns are banned in other countries because of their carcinogenic content; and most of the synthetic fertilizer that is applied ends up in our water systems.
What to do instead? Create a garden of native flowers, bushes, and trees with turf paths winding through these eco-communities that provide food and habitat for our native pollinators.
Why are these native butterflies, bees, and others important? Because they pollinate 87 percent of all flowering plants and 85 percent of our main food crops. When I design a garden, my two main goals are to create beauty and to provide a seasonal arc of pollinator support. Planting just a few plants is not sufficient so a plan is important.
For example: Monarch butterflies need the milkweeds for the caterpillar stage but it is also essential that they have the protein filled berries in the fall for their long migration flight. Another example: baby birds eat 30 to 40 times a day.
That means on average for a medium number of chicks per nest that the adults have to provide around 812 caterpillars a day within a manageable distance from the nest. And those caterpillars need the right plants to fit their digestive system. So, you can see that a variety of plant choices and timing of blooming for this all to happen is an important aspect in the design.
Plus — native plant gardens do not need fertilizers or chemical sprays and contribute to carbon sequestration through their established and sizable root systems. Step by step we can turn our seldom used turf lawns into eco-community landscapes!
Judith K. Robinson
Judith Robinson designs pollinator native plant habitats for all size gardens and pollinator hedgerows for farmers. She has taught at Mercer County Community College, the Princeton Adult School, and other venues. Visit www.ourworldourchoices.com.