United Way addresses unmet needs through programs, resourcesB

For Tom Toronto, being involved in philanthropy and non-profit organizations wasn’t something he considered a calling. But, when he was asked to help organize the United Way campaign at his university in 1982, it ended up being a lifelong commitment. Toronto is now president of Bergen County’s United Way, one of the largest charitable organizations in the community.

“I always had a sense that I wanted to do something that was mission driven, but what I liked about the United Way was that it had a business-like approach. It’s results oriented, but with a human dynamic. It’s a happy marriage of business practice and helping people,” said Toronto.

BCUW’s commitment to assist “the most vulnerable residents by developing programs and financial resources to address unmet needs” is carried out in multiple ways. About 12 years ago, the organization designed and implemented 2-1-1, a 24/7 hotline that serves the entire state of New Jersey. The goal of the hotline is to help someone in a crisis on a daily basis. There are instances like writing a check to help someone avoid eviction or pay an unexpected medical or car bill. Toronto calls it the “cord of last resort” to make sure no one falls through the safety net. But something that the implementation of the 2-1-1 hotline also did was open their eyes to more systemic problems within the area, such as affordable housing.

“As a result of the 2-1-1 system, we have a pretty keen insight as to what the challenges and human needs are. Not just in Bergen County, but across the state,” said Toronto. “Often people are in these situations because they’re paying too much to live here.”

Bergen United Way’s website states that “the affordable housing shortage profoundly affects more than 40 percent of the callers” to the 2-1-1 helpline. Armed with this information, they decided to focus their efforts on affordable housing projects or what they like to call, Housing Works.

“It doesn’t need to be studied anymore. If you want to do something about it, the answer is to build more affordable housing,” said Toronto.

He explains that the first step of the process is to identify a piece of real estate. BCUW works with government councils that have an interest in developing affordable housing in their communities. They currently have developments in Mahwah, Tenafly, and Allendale, with plans to build in Montvale, Fort Lee and more. They then organize the capital to purchase the property, though sometimes it’s deemed to them or donated by an individual.

A rendering of a new development project in Allendale.

When advertising the application, they follow something known as the Fair Housing Act, which was created to put an end to discriminatory practices in any activities related to housing. So, they must be affirmative in their marketing in order to create a robust applicant pool. From that, they check for income eligibility and more to “assure that they can live and thrive safely and securely” in the developments, affirms Toronto. If they still have too many applicants, a third-party firm is employed to do a random selection process. Many of the BCUW’s projects are dedicated to housing the disabled and most recently, veterans.

Toronto shared, “Housing for veterans is a need that needs to be addressed.”

Though the federal government declared Bergen County as the first county in the state to eliminate homelessness among veterans in August 2016, Toronto is adamant that one way to make sure it doesn’t return is to ensure they have housing. With two special needs homes in Allendale, they’ve decided to build their first veterans’ Housing Works in the same community.

Liz White, mayor of Allendale, is proud of the partnership her town has with Bergen United Way.

“They’re wonderful, very committed and a very passionate group of people. We’ve built up a great rapport and trust, so this third venture was really a no brainer,” she said.

Satisfied with the work her town has done, she continued, “We’ve always been in the forefront of providing affordable housing. The community of Allendale is extremely special and supportive of these projects. Allendale is a little unique than most other towns in New Jersey.”

By this she means they’re one of only six towns in Bergen County that was third round certified for their affordable housing obligation.

The Allendale VFW is another organization that has worked in collaboration with Bergen United Way on the veterans’ Housing Works. The VFW was able to raise a total of $3,000, presented at their Memorial Day Ceremony, towards the BCUW Housing Works projects.

“I’m saddened that there is a housing need for veterans and thankful to organizations – like the United Way – that decided to make a positive change in the community. Once the homes are built and veterans move in, we hope to connect with them to ensure needs are met and provide support if needed,” said Joseph Chinnici, a member of Allendale’s VFW.

Toronto explained why Bergen United Way has been able to make such an impact with the implementation of their Housing Works developments.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve managed to demystify what can be a complicated and confusing process for some municipalities. We’ve found a way to make it easy and understandable, practical and doable,” he said. “As each project is completed, a neighboring town sees what we’ve built and wants to create similar housing. It reinforces and is a testament to our ability to work well.”

And the work they’ve done in Allendale is a perfect example of that. To mayors in other communities that might be hesitant about implementing affordable housing projects, White says, “They’ve only made Allendale a richer community. Embrace these people and the diversity that it brings. Just allow the specialness to develop.”

Members of the Allendale VFW, pictured from left: Joseph Chinnici, Douglas Burgoyne, Jack Granowitz, Stiles Thomas, Col. Richard Jackson, George Corniotes and Commander Ernest Cassidy

By Natalie Zisa

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