If you've ever been involved in the construction or renovation of a home or office building, you understand the level of attention to detail and the intricacies involved in site planning, remediation, permits, variances, and land usage. But, imagine building or renovating over 30 structures in different areas of northern New Jersey, requiring zoning and building compliance, and then customizing each for a specific special needs population. That's the business model for Bergen County's United Way.
President Tom Toronto is at the helm of the organization and, along with his team, provides supportive housing for individuals with varying needs including intellectual and developmental disabilities. A recognized diagnosis such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis is required to be eligible for state subsidies for special needs housing. Accommodations include group homes that require round-the-clock supervisory support as well as independent living apartments, where the residents do not require such close oversight. "Each project has its own distinct application process," says Tom.
United Way also builds housing for veterans, seniors, and low-income families, keeping with their mission to build quality homes that empower individuals and families to live independently and thrive in the communities of their choice. "Affordable housing is needed because costs are so high. So far, we've completed 34 projects which house over 600 people," says Tom.
Many projects become combined living communities, blending group home accommodations and independent living apartments with adjacent senior and veteran residences. "Everyone lives quite happily together," says Tom. "It’s a nice, blended model. Seniors become adjunct grandparents in some cases. Supportive affordable housing has been traditionally underserved.”
Thanks to the past success of these models, projects are being welcomed into local communities. “People see what we build and say, ‘why not here?’ We are also checking the boxes for municipalities’ affordable housing requirements,” states Tom.
Some properties require significant environmental clean-up before being approved for residential use. “We are remediating the property to a residential social standard for the betterment of the neighborhood and then building affordable housing. This represents a win-win for the state,” he says.
The United Way finds the sites and builds the homes, but it doesn’t stop there. “We’re not service providers,” says Tom, “but we offer service coordination. Our United Way staff makes sure folks are involved and comfortable in their community and ensure the care-giving and service relationships are as they should be.” Group homes are contracted with a service provider which manages the day-to-day care of the residents.
“The United Way also offers a Compassion Fund which provides a social safety net for people who have nowhere else to turn,” says Tom. “It covers the immediate needs of people facing eviction, medical bills, child care bills, and funeral expenses. People spend up to 60-70% of their income on rent. When an emergency arises, they need assistance.”
One of their current housing projects under construction is the former Sealfon’s building in Ridgewood. When completed, it will house two group homes and six independent apartments, accommodating 16 people while retaining its lower-level commercial use. United Way has also recently completed 85 units of senior housing in Fair Lawn, special needs housing in Wyckoff, and has a site in Ho-Ho-Kus under construction.
If it sounds like the United Way has changed its mission and focus over the past twenty years--it has. If you worked in a large corporation a couple of decades ago, you might remember a yearly appeal to donate to the United Way through payroll deductions. “Our past legacy of raising and distributing money was changing,” says Tom. While local corporations used to canvass employees for pledge commitments each year, HR departments began leaning toward a more customized approach and cause-related giving. “After 9/11, the world changed rapidly, and we were left working with corporate purchasing departments. We were becoming processors, and that wasn’t our purpose. We decided to choose a social issue and focus on it—that issue was affordable housing.”
“Sometimes the municipality will donate land, and various state departments or governmental entities will help mitigate costs. There are still gaps in the funding, so we subsidize with fundraising and donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations like KPMG and UPS. What we raise, we invest back into housing.”
“Our biggest reward is when it’s move-in day,” says Tom. “It’s the sense of joy when someone gets the keys to their own place. Over time, they learn to live independently, and you watch their skills develop. It’s amazing. Parents can embrace their child’s independence when they have a strong local network of support. Whether it’s seniors, supportive housing, or family housing, the bricks are nice, but it’s really about the individuals.”