One of the largest and most well connected branches of New Jersey's state government is also perhaps one of the least recognized. Based in Trenton, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), is made up of a host of individual divisions, each responsible for its own array of community outreach, support, enforcement, and betterment programs.
According to the DCA's mission statement, the department's raison d'etre is "to provide administrative guidance, financial support, and technical assistance to local governments, community development organizations, businesses and individuals with the purpose of improving the quality of life for the citizens of New Jersey."
Divisions and Programs
The DCA has oversight over a dizzying array of issues involving local government, housing, recreation, advocacy and accessibility for people with disabilities, women's issues, fire safety, building codes, historic preservation, smart growth, redevelopment, and issues of concern to the state's minority populations. To tackle such a broad spectrum of responsibilities, the DCA is sub-divided into 8 primary divisions, each with its own area of focus.
The Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development (CHPRD) promotes the involvement of members of the Hispanic community in the development of policy through its offerings of programs and services. CHPRD funds programs developed by private and public entities throughout New Jersey to further empower the Latino community, both socially and economically. Some of the programs developed and managed by CHPRD include grants programs for Hispanic organizations, technical assistance and training programs, the Hispanic Resource Library/Data Bank, and a Research and Advocacy office, just to mention a few.
The Division of Codes and Standards works in conjunction with the state's municipalities to establish and enforce all building, structure and equipment codes and standards to promote and ensure a safe work environment and the safety of any surrounding residents. Under the auspices of the Division are such varied programs such as the Resident Site Improvement Standards and Amusement Ride Safety Programs, the Building Code Assistance Unit, the Construction Code Officials Licensing and Elevator Safety Programs, among others.
The Division of Fire Safety is responsible for the development and enforcement of the State Uniform Fire Code across New Jersey. Additionally, the division is charged with the development and administration of public education programs and the firefighter training programs.
This division also oversees the Fire Safety Commission, Legislative and Regulatory Services, the Volunteer Emergency Services Loan Program, and the State Building Fire Inspections program, to mention a few.
Recently, the Division of Codes and Standards has teamed up with the Division of Fire Safety to establish the Nightclub and Restaurant Task Force, a group chartered to ensure the safety of nightclub patrons in the wake of tragic nightclub fires in Chicago and Rhode Island. The task force and local fire officials are working together to make certain all entertainment establishments across the state adhere to state fire and exit codes.
The Division of Community Resourcesis committed to the development and wellbeing of neighborhoods across the state. This division provides financial and technical resources to nonprofit and for-profit organizations for use in homeless shelters, infrastructure improvements, economic development of downtown areas, and overall improvements to individual neighborhoods.
Programs under this division include the Relocation Assistance Program, community nutrition and low-income assistance programs, and lead-based paint abatement initiatives in low- and moderate-income housing programs, to name a few.
Often working in concert with the Division of Community Resources, The Division of Housing's primary goal is the development of neighborhoods. Through its collaboration with nonprofits, municipal governments, private development companies, and New Jersey's Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA), the division works to cultivate economic development through affordable housing.
Through the Division of Housing, the DCA is responsible for providing families with affordable housing across all 21 New Jersey counties. Over the last three years, the DCA, in conjunction with HMFA, has financed over 22,000 homes across 500 municipalities in the state, representing a total investment of more than $2.5 billion.
The Division of Housing also oversees the state's homelessness prevention and tenant-based rental assistance programs, the Housing Production Investment Fund, and the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program
The DCA's Division of Local Government Servicesalso works closely with local governments to make sure they remain fiscally sound and supports their compliance to state laws and regulations. The Division of Local Government Services manages the Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief and Cooperative Purchasing programs, as well as the Tenant Property Tax Rebate Program, among several others.
The DCA's Division of Womenadvocates for equal rights and opportunities for women from all walks of life in New Jersey. The division develops policy and coordinates and implements programs and services to address and publicize the issues and concerns of New Jersey's women.
Programs under the auspice of the Division of Women include: the state's domestic violence hotline and Sexual Assault, Abuse and Rape Care Program, the state's network of women's shelters, and job training centers for urban women, in addition to numerous other programs.
Lastly, the Office of Smart Growth holds down the responsibility of promoting and encouraging sustainable growth, development and the revitalization of New Jersey's communities without sacrificing the environment and while preserving many of the open spaces in the communities.
The state's Urban Community Education programs, the Smart Future Planning Grants initiative, and both the Smart Growth Research and Brownfields Redevelopment programs are just some of the programs under the management of the Office of Smart Growth.
At the Helm
Susan Bass Levin was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs on January 24, 2002, by former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. In her capacity as commissioner, Levin oversees the Department's various subdivisions and officials, and serves as chair of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority, the Housing & Mortgage Finance Agency, and the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).
Prior to her appointment, Levin served 14 years as mayor of Cherry Hill, one of the largest suburban municipalities in Southern New Jersey. She holds a J.D. with Honors from George Washington Law School and a B.A. from the University of Rochester.
Among her awards and distinctions, Levin has received the Governor's Award for Mayoral Volunteerism, the Philadelphia Business Journal Women of Distinction Award, Douglass College's New Jersey Women of Achievement Award, and Woman of the Year awards for several civic organizations.
A Talk with the DCA
The New Jersey Cooperatorrecently spoke with E.J. Miranda, the DCA's public information officer, and discussed the agency's achievements, its agenda, and the issues facing its administration in 2005.
What do you feel are some of the DCA's greatest achievements?
"Back in 2002, the department and Commissioner Levin made a commitment to finance 20,000 affordable housing units by the end of 2006. This translated into a 33 percent growth over the prior four-year period. Not only was the department successful in doing so, but we did it in less than four years. The department provided more than $2.5 billion in financing for more than 22,000 affordable housing units in 500 municipalities across the state of New Jersey. We were able to accomplish this goal thanks to the combined efforts of the DCA and our affiliate agency, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA).
"In addition, we have now made it easier for people to find affordable housing. By employing federal grant monies, and working with the Department of Human Services and HMFA, we launched the first ever New Jersey Housing Resource Center—it's a free, interactive online registry of affordable, accessible and special-needs housing located throughout the state. The center went live in early May of this year and is available on the web at (www.nj.gov/njhrc/). Now, New Jersey residents can search for affordable housing by location, size, price, accessibility, and so forth.
"Another major accomplishment still in the works is transferring the responsibilities of The Housing Affordability Service (HAS) to HMFA. HAS was a DCA program created back in 1988 to match affordable housing with low and moderate income families. It was designed to be a statewide program, but only 42 towns participated. The service was considered heavily bureaucratic, inefficient and slow to respond to the needs of the people. HMFA has a similar, more effective program. Thus, there was no need to duplicate efforts or resources. HMFA will use the Housing Resource Center and will be able to more effectively match available homes with those who need it most. The transition will be completed by September 30th and will save the department over $250,000 a year while increasing the speed in which we provide affordable housing to more people.
"Another accomplishment of DCA has been the development and deployment of our System for Administering Grants Effectively, or SAGE. This Internet-based system allows all DCA grant applicants to apply online for the department's 41 grant and loan programs. This is available for municipalities, non-profits or housing developers alike. SAGE is user-friendly and has completely transformed our grants system."
What are some of the priorities or goals for DCA in 2005?
"Our main goal is to improve the people, places and progress of the state of New Jersey—that will continue to be our goal this year as well.
"DCA is also implementing a new $25 million State Rental Assistance Program. We have begun the notification process on the Federal Section 8 waiting list. Our regional offices are ready to qualify people for housing vouchers. By the end of 2005, our goal is to provide over 1,000 families with homes as a result of this program.
"Beginning in September, the Permits NJ program will allow applicants for building permits to apply online through an easy-to-understand web site. Permits NJ will process and maintain records, print forms, track plan review activity and inspection requests.
"On July 1st, the department will launch its new pioneering program for housing inspections for lead safety. It is considered the most comprehensive lead safety program in the country. The program will require a 5-year inspection cycle for multiple dwellings built before 1978 to ensure the building owners maintain lead free buildings and take the necessary steps to remediate any existing lead hazards. The DCA will mandate building maintenance staff be properly trained in lead-safe work practices and that building owners keep accurate records of testing, maintenance and training."
Any other goals that DCA needs to address?
"Another goal this year is to further promote the benefits of the Statewide Transfer of Development Rights Act, or TDR, to the towns of New Jersey. Our Office of Smart Growth launched a demonstration program with the township of Montgomery and eight other towns, illustrating how the TDR works in a community's development or redevelopment needs. The TDR can help save historic structures and protect marinas, tidal lands and public access to beaches and fishing."
What is the DCA's role in governing homeowner and community associations and how will that role change under the new Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act (UCIOA) legislation?
"In brief, the department exercises limited jurisdiction by requiring that associations conduct their business openly, i.e. at meetings that are open to members; that associations adopt a method of resolving disputes between the board and members (including disputes over fines) that does not require litigation. We commonly refer to this as the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) procedure. We also require that the board allow members to access financial records of the association. The new proposal would broaden the scope of the department's involvement in aspects of association governance and administration, require the registration of associations and mandate more educational materials for consumers ethical standards for board members."
Contributing to a Better Tomorrow
The DCA is dedicated to helping the citizens of New Jersey build better lives in the Garden State. Through the development of timely and real-world based programs, the department is making affordable housing available, promoting growth through the state and building communities, one neighborhood at a time. For more information about the Department of Community Affairs, please visit their website at (www.state.nj.us/dca/) or call the DCA's information office at 609-292-6420.
Brian Ormsbee is a freelance writer living in New York City.