Morristown mayoral candidates float housing plans, as Morris Together pushes county for Homeless Trust Fund

Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty on Monday promised a post-COVID “eviction protection plan” for tenants, creation of a town hall job to oversee affordable housing issues, and municipal funding of apartment repairs as an incentive for landlords to keep their units “at rent control levels.”

His Democratic primary opponent, Esperanza Porras-Field, pledged to create a community advisory council on affordable housing, and end the practice of allowing developers to shift their affordable units to other communities.

The candidates spoke at the virtual launch of Morris Together, a coalition of congregations and nonprofits that attempted to pin down officials to solve disparities in housing, policing, and access to mental health- and substance abuse programs across Morris County.

Rabbi David Satz of Temple B’nai Or and Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel AME Church address Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“What we need is not words, but action,” said the Rev. Sarah Green of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, one of 18 organizations comprising Morris Together.

Tony development is gentrifying Morristown, the county seat, coalition members charged during the 90-minute Zoom session.

“We are seeing working class and middle class people being forced out of Morristown by rising costs,” said the Rev. Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.

The coalition announced a petition to prod the Morris County Commissioners to create a Homeless Trust Fund.

Fees of $3 to $5 added to county documents could generate $200,000 annually, Morris Together estimates, for programs to help the homeless, and for assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless.

Morris Together is a chapter of New Jersey Together, which started as Jersey City Together in 2016. They are affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national network of multi-faith organizations established in 1940.

A listening campaign with 2,400 Morris County residents last summer identified mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice reforms, and affordable housing as prime concerns, according to Morris Together.

County Commission Director Stephen Shaw told Morristown Green he wants to see that research before weighing in on a Homeless Trust Fund.

“I’m an engineer. I’d like to see that data, and have a better understanding of the findings,” said Shaw, one of several elected officials who watched Monday’s webcast.

As someone who works in the home-building business, he said, he is familiar with housing affordability issues. The commissioner said he has asked Morris Habitat for Humanity CEO Blaire Schleicher Wilson — his former colleague on the Mountain Lakes council– for more details about Morris Together.

“I’ve got to do my homework,” Shaw said.

‘WE WILL NEVER BE PERFECT’

On Monday, clergy members pressed county Acting Prosecutor Robert Carroll to reduce perceived disparities in prosecutions of Blacks.

Morris Together contends African Americans in Morris County were 22 times more likely than whites to land in state prison under former Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, who retired last year under pressure from the organization.

“We’re working with several different groups to eradicate racial discrimination in any form, in any process,” Carroll told Minister Glenn King of Morristown’s Bethel AME Church.  “We will work with you.”

Minister Glenn King speaks with Acting Morris Prosecutor Robert Carroll at Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“I know in the past there’s been issues. I believe now with the management team and administration I put in place, we can do things that maybe haven’t been done before,” Carroll said.

That includes providing crisis intervention training for police. Morris had been one of only two New Jersey counties where such training had not been available, the acting prosecutor acknowledged.

Morris Together also extracted a pledge from the CEO of ModivCare to improve the company’s transportation of county residents to mental health and recovery programs.

Melissa Lapinski of Neighbors in Need at Drew University said she almost got booted from a hospital outpatient program in Boonton a few years ago because ModivCare could not deliver her in timely fashion from her Long Valley home.

“I critically needed this mental health care,” she said, asserting that other agencies have reported similar complaints about the company, formerly known as LogistiCare.

“We will never be perfect,” answered CEO Daniel Greenleaf, who seemed taken aback by the tenor of the questioning and offered a vigorous defense of ModivCare, which he has run since December 2019.

The company has made free deliveries of two million meals during the pandemic, he said. ModivCare completes more than 15,000 trips daily, many in Morris County, a spokesman added.

“Listen, folks … if that’s ever any question about our commitment, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Greenleaf told Marnie Kaller of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown. “We’re here to do good. We believe in our mission. We are here to address the inequities in care.

Marnie Kaller of the Presbyterian Church addresses, clockwise from top, Modivcare CEO Daniel Greenleaf and company officials Kenneth Wilson and Chris Echols, at Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“We elevate people, we uplift people. You know, we’re familiar with the food deserts. The pharmacy deserts. The vaccine deserts…the broadband deserts. We know what redlining means, what it’s meant to these communities,” the CEO continued.

“And so, I was surprised, to be honest with you, about what just transpired, because I went into this with, I think, a collaborative mindset. It’s still there. But, listen folks, I don’t think there’s a company out there that is more socially responsible,” Greenleaf said.

‘MORRISTOWN IS IN A HOUSING CRISIS’

Dougherty, who seeks a fourth term, made a similarly impassioned pitch for his housing policies over the last 12 years — a period of intense development.

Developers have contributed $2.5 million to an affordable housing trust fund, of which about $1 million has been spent, Dougherty said.

Some 156 affordable units have been added on his watch, he said, and 89 more are planned by 2025, for a total of 245 units. That’s a five-fold increase over affordable units created in the two decades preceding his election, he said.

The mayor cited his administration’s push to redevelop blighted properties, along with “aggressive rent control” for more than 2,000 apartments, partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Homeless Solutions Inc., and town contributions to improvements by the Morristown Housing Authority.

The Rev. Alison Miller speaks to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty at Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“How can the mayor claim to be a champion of affordable housing when the average Morristown renter pays almost $3,400 more per year than the state average?” countered Porras-Field, a realtor, who advocated for greater transparency.

The three-minute format did not allow either candidate time to elaborate on their housing plans.

The Rev. Alison Miller speaks to Morristown Mayoral candidate Esperanza Porras-Field at Morris Together virtual launch, May 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

For many, Morristown epitomizes a thriving community.  The skyline is rising with offices and luxury apartments. The downtown routinely lands on media “best of” lists.

But Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship painted a starker picture. Affordable housing “has reached a breaking point” across the county, she said, and the situation is “much, much worse” here.

“So let’s just say it clearly: Morristown, is in a housing crisis. It’s a housing crisis that has gotten worse,” said Miller, disputing Dougherty’s claim that the town has satisfied its Fair Share affordable housing obligation.

Even before the pandemic, Miller said, about one-third of Morristown — more than 2,500 families — struggled to cover housing costs. Half of those families were paying at least half their income to keep a roof over their heads.

While recent years have seen Morristown’s median income nearly double, to $100,000, the minister continued, the Black population has declined by 60 percent over the last few decades.

Young people, and workers in downtown restaurants and businesses, can’t afford to live here. Many tenants fear evictions when COVID protections expire; they tell clergy that landlords drive them out so they can raise rents, Miller said.

In 2005, Morristown voters approved a landlord-backed referendum to replace rent controls with vacancy decontrol.

Vacancy decontrol covers about 2,500 apartments constructed before 1981. Rent increases for those tenants are tied to the Consumer Price Index. But landlords can charge market rates to new tenants when those apartments become vacant.

Councilman Robert Iannaccone has said it’s time to revive rent control.

A scarcity of affordable housing for working-class families earning $40,000 to $80,000 threatens the town’s diversity, he told the council in 2018.

“It’s getting harder and harder for them to live, not just in Morristown, but anywhere,” said Iannaccone, a lawyer and hospital chief executive who rented in town early in his career.

Attendees at Monday’s session included state Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-25th Dist.), representatives of Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-25th Dist) and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), Morris Sheriff James Gannon, and Morris Township Mayor Jeff Grayzel, according to Morris Together.

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