Veterans in need of affordable housing may get help this year in the form of a bill making its way through the New Jersey state Legislature that would give them preference in housing choices.
Advocates say the measure is a step forward, but it doesn't address larger problems, including a shortage of affordable housing and the difficulties inherent in launching new veterans-only projects.
Assembly Bill 1744, which has been introduced twice before, would give preference to veterans who qualify for affordable housing assistance. It also allows municipalities to sign agreements with developers in which as many as 50 percent of the units they build would be set aside for low-income veterans.
For the first time, the bill has passed the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee after being combined with similar legislation last month. The bill has five sponsors, including Assemblymen Chris Brown and co-sponsor John Amodeo, both R-Atlantic.
A state Senate committee approved its version of the bill Sept. 24. The bills now await votes by the full Senate and Assembly.
"We should provide our veterans every opportunity to live with dignity in the community they so willingly protected with their service," said Brown, an Army veteran who served during Operation Desert Storm. "Veterans without housing aren't able to fully integrate and participate in their communities."
"This is something that needs to be tackled coast to coast, border to border," said Bob McNulty, vice chairman of the Atlantic County Veterans Advisory Board and a member of the New Jersey VFW's legislative committee.
Between shortages of housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and affordable housing statewide, McNulty said veterans don't have many options. And if they do qualify for assistance, he said, it can still be difficult to improve their situation.
Many returning veterans find it hard to get by on government assistance, but if they find a better-paying job, they could make too much money to qualify for the scant available resources.
"They may no longer qualify for a voucher, but that's still not enough income for housing," McNulty said. "They make too much to qualify and too little to get by with the vouchers."
Bill Butler, commander of American Legion Post 352 in Somers Point, said there should be some mechanism to ensure veterans are placed in quality housing, particularly after the failed veterans housing project at The Gates at Somers Point apartment complex.
A number of veterans were left living amid crime and squalor at the complex after the Egg Harbor Township nonprofit Community Quest -- which had envisioned 202 units of affordable housing exclusively for veterans -- pulled out of the project last year.
"There should be much more investigation into where they're going to be placed," he said. "Make sure the property is adequate, livable and there's no crime."
Otherwise, Butler said, he supports any help the state can provide veterans.
A number of municipalities have already looked into veterans-only housing complexes that would satisfy their state affordable housing quotas. In addition to Somers Point, Tuckerton approved a project that would bring 24 units of new construction. That project, also spearheaded by Community Quest, has faced permitting delays and became mired in debt.
Egg Harbor Township Administrator Peter Miller said the township has been in discussions with a builder who would set aside 50 percent of its units for veterans, but the necessary funding hasn't materialized because of the recession.
"They're in a holding pattern," he said. "They told us that they would get back to us later this year to talk to us again."
Amodeo, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the funding just isn't available to supplement new affordable-housing projects, many of which are undertaken by nonprofits.
However, he said, the bill would at least give veterans assistance in securing housing.
"That piece of legislation is not going to solve the problem in the big picture," he said. "But it's going to send a message to veterans we're looking to give them preference in housing for the sacrifices they've made."
Brown said he hopes the bill will ease the difficult transition facing veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I was fortunate," he said. "I had a strong support group and returned to school and assimilated back into civilian life. There are friends of mine who were not as fortunate, who still carry with them the trauma of being in a combat environment."
Something as simple as stable housing, Brown said, can go a long way toward assisting veterans in that process.
McNulty said A-1744's progress is promising, but it's also telling that the bill has taken four years to get this far. Whether it gets any farther will depend on support from both chambers and Gov. Chris Christie, he said, which aren't assured given recent legal battles over Council on Affordable Housing mandates.
"It shouldn't take bills four years to get through the Legislature," he said. "It's frustrating and disappointing, but most things don't move fast through Trenton."