Murphy Urged to Work With Lawmakers on Emergency Housing Aid as Clock Ticks

Published February 26, 2019
By Colleen O'Dea

Advocates have asked governor to compromise on a bill expanding aid for the homeless, while an attempted override of his veto of the bill looms

On the heels of a postponed attempt to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill seeking to expand emergency housing aid to needy New Jerseyans, 150 advocates sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy urging him to work with lawmakers to provide for that aid and to quickly sign another bill to help the state’s homeless.

The letter, signed by individuals representing a diverse group of organizations ranging from the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey to the Urban League of Essex County, asks Murphy to consider allowing the extension of housing assistance that was embodied in S-1965 but capping its total cost. Murphy vetoed the bill last month, citing the potential cost of the program.

“We urge you to consider other solutions, like a new bill that limits the cost of the program to $20 million, that would protect these residents while limiting the impact on the budget,” the letter states. “Advocates do not anticipate that the cost of the legislation will come close to that figure. This is an issue critical to NJ’s most vulnerable residents and we hope you will resolve this issue without delay.”

Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said $20 million is the maximum annual cost of the bill, nowhere near the $200 million estimate by an administration official, when last Thursday he pulled from the Senate agenda a vote to override Murphy’s veto after the governor agreed to work with Sweeney on a compromise. An override by a Legislature dominated by his own party would be an embarrassment to the governor, who is only a month into his second year in office.

March 14 deadline
Sweeney has given Murphy a March 14 deadline to agree to a measure to allow people receiving cash public assistance, formerly known as welfare, to get 12-to-18 months of emergency housing aid every seven years if they need it. Currently, the average person can get only one emergency payment over his lifetime. The aid, estimated at between $600 and $1,000 a month per person, is available only to those facing imminent homelessness.

If Murphy and lawmakers cannot agree on such an aid extension over the next 2 ½ weeks, Sweeney said he will put the veto up for an override at the March 14 Senate session. The chances for success are good, given both houses of the Legislature had passed the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support. The New Jersey Legislature has not overridden a gubernatorial veto in 22 years and that was with a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature.

Advocates argue that the lifetime cap is cruel, as an individual’s circumstances can change dramatically over time. A person who may have received aid as a young single parent should not be prevented from getting additional aid 25 years later if facing homelessness due to a job loss and other financial problems, they contend.

They, and Sweeney, were upset that the bill may have been a casualty in the ongoing feud between the Senate president and the governor. Sweeney is a sponsor of five of eight bills Murphy has vetoed so far during his tenure, and 16 of 40 measures he has conditionally vetoed. The absolute veto of Sweeney’s emergency housing-aid bill had not been expected, especially since Murphy is a progressive and had only conditionally vetoed an earlier Sweeney bill to restore emergency housing aid for five years to a different group of individuals. Lawmakers agreed to Murphy’s conditions and that bill is now law.

In the same letter, the advocates called on Murphy to sign as soon as possible A-4177. This bill, which was sent to Murphy’s desk at the end of last month, would allow counties to use money from their homeless trust funds to support emergency shelter services during a Code Blue alert — when the temperature falls to 25 degrees, 32 degrees with precipitation or 0 degrees with a wind chill. Currently, money from a homeless trust fund can only be used to provide permanent affordable housing.

Allowing counties to add $2 surcharge
Counties that have started trust funds collect a $3 surcharge on all documents, including deeds and mortgages, filed in the county to deposit into the fund. Ten counties that collected surcharges in 2016 took in a total $1.7 million. The bill would allow these counties to collect an additional $2 surcharge and use that money to provide emergency shelter for the homeless during a Code Blue event.

Under a 2017 state law, every county must develop a plan for issuing an alert each time the weather is cold enough to trigger a Code Blue and the plans must include information about emergency warming centers available to the homeless. Counties can designate nonprofit organizations and volunteers to implement their plans and do not have to spend money on shelters, although some do.

“It is time for New Jersey to enable counties that want to provide Code Blue shelter services for their homeless residents to have the ability to raise funds to pay for them,” the advocates’ letter states. “During the cold days of this winter, Code Blue has been vital to provide shelter services for our state’s homeless population. Despite their best efforts working with local non-profits, some counties have found this requirement a financial burden.”

So far, 11 of the state’s counties have formed homeless trust funds: Bergen, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Passaic, Somerset and Union.

The advocates said they hope that the bill “will encourage the counties that do not have Trust Funds to enact one.”