Development conference panel discusses best practices for health, housing and more in cities

Published October 22, 2019
By Meg Fry

Nearly one year after the release of “Thriving Cities: A Report on the New Urban Agenda,” Staci Berger, CEO and president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said that, while a number of policy recommendations listed within the report have been implemented at the state level, many municipalities have yet to follow suit.

“We need to continue asking what works well elsewhere and how we can implement these best practices in our own towns,” she said.

Berger moderated a panel discussing these best practices at the 23rd annual Governor’s Conference on Housing and Economic Development, held recently in Atlantic City.

The Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, the statewide association of more than 150 community-based development organizations that released the “Thriving Cities” report, was created to enhance the efforts of these groups to work with and alongside private-sector partners to create affordable housing and revitalize communities.

“These policy recommendations were designed to encourage investment in communities where the market has not yet reached, while making sure long-term residents are not displaced,” Berger said.

Though the organization received support from JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy to apply its recommendations to cities such as Paterson, Trenton and Camden, more can be done within the state of New Jersey, Michellene Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at RWJBarnabas Health, said.

“Staci Berger holds for us the space that permits us to be able to really look at the systems and structures that have contributed to the creation of inequities in our society at every level, and holds accountable those individuals in power with an effortless grace to ensure more people come to the table, rather than be repelled away,” she said.

For example, in focusing on community health care, outcomes have generally improved, while the disparities gap has actually widened, Davis said.

“If you are black or brown, your rate of death is much higher than it was 20 years ago — because there have been systems and structures created to further the proliferation of a permanent underclass, and there are still some in power who are OK with that,” Davis added. “But we at RWJBarnabas Health finally understand that where you live, work and play, whether or not you are safe where you worship, whether or not your kids can go to school without fear, all of it contributes to your eventual health care outcomes.

“So, what we have finally done is become active listeners to those members of our communities that have always known that we cannot be healthy if we have no heat; that we cannot be worried about scheduling a mammogram if our first concern is whether or not we will make it on time to our second or third jobs; and that we cannot be healthy if our children are not. So, we lead in a different way now, adopting a mission not simply of health care delivery, but also of well-being, understanding that we cannot wait for you to arrive inside the walls of our hospitals, but rather, must be out and about in the communities where you already are.”

RWJBarnabas Health has committed itself over the last couple of years to using its financial investments to tackle key social determinants of health, including education, access to healthy food, safe neighborhoods and affordable housing options.

“In encouraging more hospitals to get into housing, the housing-first model is really the first of its kind in the country, helping to accelerate us to where we really need to be in this space,” Davis said.

Research shows that living in substandard housing in communities of blight has been linked to psychological behavioral disfunction, lower test scores in children, higher risks of child maltreatment and a number of health issues, including elevated blood levels and asthma, Davis added.

“We cannot expect you to come to our hospital doors, then turn around and blame you for being sick,” she said. “I used to hear things like, ‘These people don’t want to be medically compliant’ — or, rather, are they just trying to figure out how to fill their prescriptions and still make it to work on time, or still ensure their family has enough to eat?

“We need to bring about systems change in order to ensure that affordable housing is safe to ensure a healthier community.”

Mayor Andre Sayegh of Paterson said his community has indeed partnered with its hospital, St. Joseph’s Health System, and the New Jersey Community Development Corp. to build 60 affordable housing units for those who most frequently visit the emergency room.

“We’ve also worked with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority — you name it, we’ve worked with them, because it is all about leveraging relationships with such organizations,” he said.

Sayegh said the city also has earmarked tax credits for senior housing in the interest of equitable economic development.

“We’ve also worked to generate positive press for our city, because one of the biggest barriers to such growth is the perception of Paterson,” he said.

Sayegh described how two neighboring towns, Elmwood Park and Woodland Park, had changed their names from East Paterson and West Paterson.

“When neighboring towns don’t want to be associated with you, that only exacerbates the situation and makes Paterson a tougher sell,” he said. “That’s why, as soon as I came into office last year, we began rebranding our city right away, to be the city of the Great Falls, great food and great films.”

For example, Steven Spielberg recently filmed the revival of “West Side Story” in Paterson.

“We’re looking to leverage the assets our city already has, which is a train station that hasn’t been fully utilized, the Great Falls National Historical Park and the nearly 70 nationalities we have living in the city,” Sayegh said.

Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp., said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka also frequently talks about the challenge of attracting investment to spur revitalization while also being able to distribute that new wealth to the citizens already living there today.

“There is a tension between people who want to invest money and seek a return on that money and people at the grassroots level, such as myself, who push aggressive policies,” he said.

During Della Fave’s tenure organizing and leveraging activism for justice and equity, Ironbound Community has led the development of the 15-acre Riverfront Park, created a nationally accredited birth to 5 early learning center, developed 92 affordable homes and guided the passage of Newark’s inclusionary housing, right to counsel and environmental justice and cumulative impacts ordinances.

“When we (revitalized) Newark’s Riverside Park, which used to be a contaminated, dilapidated waterfront, the public housing project adjacent to that park was told within the year that it would be demolished,” he said. “But we can’t provide amenities and push for great things in neighborhoods that are on the cusp of change and not protect the people who live there, who have suffered through the harder times.”

Instead, Della Fave said we must ask — as he did in keeping those residents in their housing — how can we uplift the people who live in these communities, instead of replacing them? How do we build a society that is equitable, fair and healthy in all regard? How does Newark, in its current stage of revitalization, with its poverty and limited resources, create a vision and future for its residents?

“Newark does this with strong anchor institutions that have embedded themselves into the city, working in all facets, from procurement to employment to policy development; by working with its fantastic nonprofit infrastructure to bring to the forefront the needs of the neighborhood; and by electing incredible leaders, because, no matter how good a policy is, we would not be able to get things done without political will,” he said.

That is why Newark now has one of the most aggressive inclusionary zoning ordinances in the country, requiring that 20% of all residential developments with 30 units or more have affordable housing below 80%, 60% and 40% of the area median income.

“This provides residents of Newark with the opportunity to be part of the new developments occurring in Newark,” Della Fave said.

Furthermore, with nearly 25,000 eviction cases in Newark occurring annually, the right to counsel for low-income renters in housing eviction court ensures virtually no tenant goes to court without legal representation.

“We need to stop the displacement of residents to make room for higher rents if we’re going to be an equitable and just society,” Della Fave said.

Lastly, Della Fave and his organization work tirelessly to ensure a high active citizen rate in Newark.

“Community organizing is an important part of this in order to have neighborhoods feel that they can in fact improve, that they will have a say in that improvement, and there is a brighter, foreseeable future,” he said.