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Sunday, May 26, 2024

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Affordable Housing – Cape May County in Crisis

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By David Robinson

Housing is no longer available for individuals of low or modest incomes. From cold calling Realtor’s, placing advertisements in the classifieds, seeking help, advice and leads from friends, employers, social agencies, and churches, all has led to a dead end. A local Realtor created a web site dedicated to help applicants find housing. Pages and pages of applicants requesting housing.

There. Is. Nothing. Available. Anywhere. 

Year-round rentals have vanished. 

What happened?  

Several economic and societal trends converged on our county over decades. Small industries producing fire brick, textiles, clam processing plants and other manufacturers of products either closed or relocated out of county. Employment became seasonal, at lower wages, with fewer benefits. Renting houses or small apartments became unprofitable. Tenants had trouble paying, damage to properties became the new normal, and the never-ending upward trend of higher property taxes, not to mention burdensome rules and regulations became untenable for landlords who charged modest rents. 

For decades, prior to the 80’s, Cape May had a high alcoholism rate, seasonal employment, and a culture of working just enough months to earn the vetted unemployment checks that would carry them thru the winter months. It was how this county survived economically. And somehow, we functioned. With far fewer problems than now. 

Unemployment rules changed. It is impossible to qualify for benefits if working a three- or four-month seasonal job.  

A drug plague hit our county. Heroin, Oxycontin, and then fentanyl led to lives cut short. Alcohol addiction would take decades to ruin and end lives. Drugs only take months. 

Lives were interrupted by imprisonment, job loss, and drug rehabilitation. State benefits provided temporary motel vouchers for short periods. Many of the unhoused had estranged family relations and no social network of friends, family or church. After social services ended meager support of temporary housing and food stamps, there was no support network. 

Another trend of economic prosperity arrived. For some. Land and home values went skyward. This is the land of beach and ocean with easy living. Suddenly, everybody wanted to live at the shore. Thanks to the internet, home businesses, and zoom meetings, people could live almost anywhere with a fiber optic connection. 

Rental houses were sold to new residents as year-round or seasonal dwellings. Corporations bought housing at prices no one could compete with.  

Airbnb’s and vacation rentals by owners proliferated throughout our county. Homes and apartments that had rented at very modest sums now commanded a few thousand dollars as monthly rent.  

Yearly affordable rental apartments, that is, those that are available, and the inventory is shrinking monthly, went from five hundred dollars a month to well over a thousand, and the rent is still increasing. 

County-wide inventory of year-round housing has continued to decline. 

Cape May County developed at least three homeless camps. Tents in the woods, on private land, “Squatters rights” became the norm. Rio Grande became homeless central, people living in tents, with some still drug and alcohol addicted, and with criminal records. With no permanent address, face tattoo’s, some dealing with physical and emotional health issues, not only were they unemployed, but they were unemployable. 

Petty crime increased in Rio Grande. Panhandling, shoplifting, and other minor crimes increased. A longtime resident confided how his father’s property, with acres of land, went from a valuation of one million dollars to one hundred thousand dollars because of the homeless epidemic and petty crime. 

Homeless were living in the woods, but nobody had a solution. Some theorized it was a lifestyle they desired. Others concluded the homeless population was a temporary social phenomenon. But the bottom line is – with no housing available, where are they going to go?  

People were selling homes and relocating as quality-of-life issues degraded neighborhoods and lowered property values. Dark storm clouds arrived on the horizon. COVID-19 came ashore like a hurricane. An executive order allowing tenants not to pay rent for two years decimated small landlords. Landlords went bankrupt and were forced to sell, reducing housing stock that was already rapidly declining. Suddenly, unemployment paid much more than working for many people. Businesses could not find employees. Some restaurants closed three or more days a week due to lack of help. Other businesses paid close to twenty dollars an hour for unskilled and seasonal jobs. No one wanted the jobs. Many low-income workers moved to other counties. A recession is looming. Help wanted signs proliferated.  

With no employees, and no housing, who is going to work at the trades, restaurants, hotels, service jobs, and businesses that depend on their labor? 

Our next crisis will be many jobs available and no employees. Business will stagnate and close permanently for lack of employees. No high tech or light industry will relocate to the Cape without housing and employees.  

How is our county going to grow and thrive? Our county will be in economic free fall. Societal problems will multiply. If workers relocate out of county, it will not be economically feasible to drive over an hour each way, paying considerable transportation costs, plus the quality-of-life issues of commuting hours for a low paying job with limited benefits.  

Late at night, unable to sleep, as a winter nor-Easter with raging winds pound my windows, slanting rain, forty-degree temperatures and dropping, I ponder the plight of a housing catastrophe.  

Society has created a modern-day tower of babel. Everyone is talking a different language. Nothing is accomplished since no one can understand the position of an opposing party… we can place blame on politicians, archaic rules and regulations, land use regulations, zoning boards, landlords, tenants, corporations, businesses, realtors, even citizens, but maybe the root cause is much deeper than anyone realizes.  

On the surface, a Rubik’s cube puzzle appears simple. But it is very hard unless you determine beforehand a correct series of moves. 

And the wrong moves only exacerbate the problem…  

Are we asking the right questions? Maybe we will not accept the answers, or truth being unpleasant, have decided to bury our collective heads in the sand.  

Perhaps, with debate, a consensus will form. A national consciousness will stir, and collectively, we can “Man Up” and “Own It”  

Only then can we begin to fix affordable housing. 

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