Erica West, Director of Development, Bergen County United Way
Everyone knows, or has at least heard of, United Way. A nonprofit veteran that raises critical dollars for dozens of worthwhile charitable and community organizations to address our society’s greatest issues.
What is less familiar to most, is that in 2005, Bergen County’s United Way made a clear cut and dramatic shift in focus. Under the leadership of President, Tom Toronto, the organization completely reinvented itself to directly serve our community in an increasingly personal way. Specifically to address, what is arguably New Jersey’s biggest community issue, housing affordability.
In partnership with the Madeline Corporation, they established themselves as an award winning Non-For-Profit housing developer of independent living opportunities in Northern New Jersey, called Very Special Homes. Initially, building for hard working families and adults with developmental disabilities, they now build for military families and aging adults, as well.
“We believe everyone, regardless of perceived ability, deserves the freedom to make the basic choices that define their lives,” says President Tom Toronto. “The most basic choice any of us can make is where we choose to live.”
Yet, in New Jersey, we have a critical shortage of homes people can afford. Our communities are simply not offering enough choice of where to live or enough variety in the types of homes available.
This acute lack of housing has contributed to New Jersey carrying one of the highest housing costs in the nation and is forcing some people to leave the state altogether.
This is an escalating crisis affecting all of us: our hard working families, our aging parents, our kids returning from college, our veterans, and adults with developmental disabilities. Without viable places to live, what will our communities look like in the next five or ten years?
Despite this escalating crisis, the term Affordable Housing has become a bit of a controversial word here in New Jersey. Communities are concerned about how such developments are going to affect their town culture, school costs, property value, and safety.
“Our goal has always been to improve neighborhoods and create homes that all people can afford, because a home is for everyone,” says United Way housing partner, Shari Depalma of the Madeline Corporation. “Together, we are offering up a new vision. What does that vision look like? It looks like the towns and cities we already live in.”
Bergen County’s United Way is dissipating common assumptions and changing the face of affordable housing, by building developments we want in our backyard. Their contemporary style apartments, condominiums, townhouses, and group homes are indistinguishable from market rate housing, well designed and fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.
The organization’s most notable developments serve the more than 50,000 adults with developmental disabilities living in New Jersey. Nearly 8,000 of whom are still awaiting housing opportunities, allowing them to live a more independent and self-sufficient lifestyles.
Jon, a tenant living independently, in United Way’s Very Special Homes poignantly shares, “People think because you have a disability (Autism), that you don’t want or need much. Yes, I think and act differently, but I have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. And part of that dream was to live on my own.”
To date Bergen County’s United Way and Madeline Corporation have built over 24 developments with another 23 projects in the pipeline. Their creative housing solutions are offering us all more freedom to choose where we live, more mobility to access decent schools and jobs, and more opportunity to thrive by creating places to live in New Jersey we can all afford.
If you want to learn more about Bergen County’s United Way please visit www.bergenunitedway.org