Newark’s Response to Pandemic Housing Crisis is a ‘Success Story’, Study Says

“Department heads and city staff realized they didn’t have the capacity to record and understand the metrics of distribution,” said David Troutt, the founding director of the Newark-based Rutgers Center of Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity, and lead author of the study. “And rather than trying to push through and hope for the best, they sought outside assistance. It really was a case of taking stock of one’s own capacity.”

As urban municipalities were faced with the unprecedented task of quickly dispersing rental assistance during a worldwide public health crisis, the study aimed to highlight what worked and what didn’t for municipalities when distributing rental assistance. The goal of the study, officials said, is that it helps other municipalities learn how to respond more efficiently during a housing crisis. 

The study looked at cities like Newark where more than 60% of households are renters. All cities also had elevated rates of poverty compared to the state as a whole. Additionally, in Newark, Trenton and Camden, the median household income is less than half the median throughout the state. All of these municipalities' residents are also majority-minority and are widely known to be more impacted by eviction, and more vulnerable to instability from the pandemic.

When Newark Mayor Ras Baraka last year laid out a roadmap for the city's pandemic economic recovery plan, he reported about 16,000 residents lost their jobs in 2020 between February and May. At its peak, the city’s unemployment rate rose to 19%. Two years later, the city’s unemployment rate hovers around 8%, according to data from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

For Newark, which went through four rounds of rental assistance funding, the study found that the city was slow to start committing its funding in October 2021, but now the program is viewed as “exemplary.”

Early mishaps, officials said, were attributed to the administrative responsibilities for disbursing funds and assessing the effectiveness of a large federal program; administrative leadership over the city’s Economic and Housing Department Office of Affordability and Sustainability (OAS) had changed hands in March 2020; and the office’s limited staff had less than five full-time employees.

Organizationally, the study said, Newark’s public sector did not have the resources in place to suddenly implement a new set of program requirements. 

“Ultimately, the city learned it was not getting dollars out to landlords and couldn’t determine what worked and what didn’t, or how long it would take for people to be paid,” the study said.

A pivotal moment in the city’s ability to effectively distribute its federal monies came by way of establishing partnerships with community groups and residents, as well as hiring Ernst & Young to administer the program. Ernst & Young began running Newark’s web portal with the ERAP rollout in summer 2021. The site was intended to be easy to use, with clear demarcations for renters and tenants.

Additionally, Ernst & Young officials virtually trained community-based organizations in how to assist applicants where they lived. The city offered how-to videos on another platform they had developed during the pandemic, as well as in-person and call center support.

In December 2021, Baraka championed the city’s partnerships with various entities and groups to effectively dole out its federal monies.

“Newark’s leadership in distributing [ERAP] funds is the result of a wide-ranging collaboration between community groups, clergy, council members, tenant organizations, individuals, and many others joining together to help prevent Newarkers from being evicted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Baraka. “As the eviction moratoriums expire, Newark has applied for additional ERAP funds, will expand the staffing of our Office of Tenant Legal Services, and join with other cities and states to fight for enough federal ERAP funds to stop COVID-related evictions.”

After the city committed its emergency rental assistance funds, it has since applied for additional ERAP resources. Applicants in Newark have also been encouraged to apply to the Essex County program, which received a separate allocation.

Moving forward, Troutt said he is hopeful that the study helps to expand discourse about the affordable housing crisis in cities.

“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,” he said. “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.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-03-02 02:47:54 -0800