Lakewood Affordable Housing Losers Crying Foul


shmuel-lefkowitzZach Patberg of the Asbury Park Press reportsJohnnie Brown has waited three years to buy a home. In April 2008, he entered a lottery for one of 72 affordable housing units in Lakewood. His was the 400th number picked. So the 47-year-old housekeeper and father of four focused on building his credit – attending programs, paying bills on time. When another chance for a subsidized mortgage comes around, he’ll be ready.

“I’ve just been waiting on the houses to get built,” Brown said.

His chance might be coming soon. Following a yearlong delay, another lottery is on the horizon for 60 more townhouses. Yet the project that these units are a part of still faces logistical and image challenges. After the first 72 condominiums of what is slated to be one of the state’s largest purely affordable housing efforts were built and sold off Vine Avenue, questions arose over whether the project was shaping to be as diversified as it should be.

Rather than blame an unfair process, some black and Latino leaders pointed to a lack of preparation and enthusiasm from their minority home-seekers – not to mention that, by this time, Orthodox Jews’ majority in the 72 units comes close to matching its majority of Lakewood’s population.

Still, concerns remained, and, in part, to quell them, housing leaders made a point of identifying a different kind of development as the likely next phase of the 400-unit project – one by a different developer that offers smaller and cheaper homes.

That is no longer the plan. Instead, the next phase will probably be an extension of the first 72 units, developers say, causing at least one housing watchdog to turn skeptical.

“We want to see as much affordable housing moving forward as possible,” said Adam Gordon, an attorney with the statewide Fair Share Housing Center. “Why one development is moving forward and the other developments aren’t is what we’d like answered.”

The answer, according to project developers, lies with a water pump station. For more than a year, the entire project has been held up by a pump station that can’t seem to be realized. Yet the 60-unit extension was able to bypass the snag when engineers discovered they don’t need it. Because of an increased sewage pipe capacity and the slope of the land, they can work off the existing main pump station, said the developer, Shmuel Lefkowitz.

Richard Barnes, a spokesman for New Jersey American Water, said the capacity was not increased, just that pipes were rerouted.

“NJ Hand (Lefkowitz’s nonprofit development company) was able to find a way to redirect some of the flow through the sewer line,” he said.

A meeting is scheduled next week between the project developers and federal and state officials to discuss financing for the new pump station, which was billed at $3 million but could cost less, Lefkowitz said.

Asked if he were concerned about perceptions that the overall project was beginning to look unfair, Lefkowitz emphasized that he was one of three developers working independently but under the same buyer selection process, which includes random lotteries.

“We welcome everybody,” he said. “Any criticism we consider unfounded and unfair after we’ve gone out of our way to do everything in a fair and open way.”

Meanwhile, STEPS, the developer originally assumed to build next group of homes, is focusing on recruiting applicants and getting their credentials ready for when NJ Hand starts looking for buyers, not wanting to be unprepared a second time.

Wallace Doman, the agency’s housing director, said since the last phase, he has a list of 175 new applicants, of which 90 families are “ready and able” to mortgage a home for up to $170,000. The first 72 units cost between $105,000 and $170,000. Whether the next 60 condos will follow suit depends one how much government grant assistance arrives, Lefkowitz said.

But it’s not just Lakewood where these applicants are searching for homes. From 36 units in Red Bank to 80 units in Asbury Park and Neptune to 40 units in Toms River, affordable housing has reach across Monmouth and Ocean counties, according to Doman, who is also a real estate agent for Century 21.

“More people are getting ready sooner because more people can see the prize,” he said.

{APP/Noam Newscenter}