Use federal COVID relief for housing, education, and health care, activists urge

By: - April 20, 2022 7:15 am

As Gov. Phil Murphy mulls how to spend $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds, progressive activists gathered online on April 19, 2022, for a “People’s Hearing” to recommend how they think it should be spent. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governor’s Office)

New Jersey is flush with federal pandemic relief funds, sitting on $3 billion still undesignated. Progressive activists see that as an opportunity for state officials to reach out to vulnerable populations and help all residents recover from the pandemic.

During a virtual event Tuesday they dubbed a “People’s Hearing,” the activists criticized the state Legislature for failing to hold public hearings on how the billions would best serve the state. They listed potential ways they hope state officials will use the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to directly help struggling residents. 

“The governor has recognized in his budget address that we have to be asking for whom we are making New Jersey more affordable, and we couldn’t agree more. That’s why the bulk of the remaining funds should be spent on low-income residents who were hurt most by the pandemic,” said Peter Chen of New Jersey Policy Perspective. 

The meeting was organized by the For the Many NJ coalition, comprised of several progressive advocates and organizations from across the state. Speakers included policy experts, activists, and people still recovering from the pandemic — renters, essential workers, houseless residents, and people of color.

During previous recessions, states struggled with federal aid that fell short of needs and ran out quickly, said Ed Lazere, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.

But during the pandemic, the federal government recognized states will need some wiggle room in addressing both the pandemic’s immediate impacts as well as “long-standing community challenges,” he said. He urged state lawmakers to work directly with communities on how to best use the remaining billions.

“New Jersey should not squander this opportunity … One way or another, the state will soon allocate more than $3 billion in remaining federal funds,” he said. “Residents should have a say in those decisions, because all residents have a stake in the outcomes.”

Murphy has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate ARP funds. The state has already spent about half of the $6.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds it received.

What activists and experts want

Wandalynn Miftahi, 63, said she’s been unhoused for 12 years. She ended up on the streets and hopping from house to house after a divorce left her unable to afford a home of her own. As the cost of living climbs, she said, she can’t afford a home without assistance. 

Miftahi criticized Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to use federal funds to recruit police officers, and said she’d rather see up to $1 billion set aside for housing and cash relief to get people in underserved communities into good, stable shelter. Money should also support skills training for employment and child care, she said, which will give people a better chance.

“People right now are worried that they’re going to be evicted. So there’s going to be a higher population of homeless people — where is their community going to be, in the streets? Where is their home going to be, in the streets?” she said. “What are we going to do?”

Murphy’s $48.9 billion budget proposal includes $300 million for 3,000 new affordable homes across the state. Larry Holman of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey commended the Democratic governor’s plan but urged him to triple the investment into critical housing programs.

The organization is asking Murphy to dedicate $975 million in ARP funds to expand the affordable housing trust fund, strengthen rental release programs and create new initiatives like first-time home buyer credits or foreclosure projects. 

To afford the average two-bedroom rental in the Garden State, workers need to make $31.96 an hour — or work 107 hours a week at minimum wage, he said. That gets worse when the racial wealth gap is taken into account. 

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to help mitigate and undo systemic racism, which prevents Black and Brown families from achieving homeownership and safe, affordable rental homes,” he said. “We won’t fix it overnight, but we can start today.” 

Raquel Romans-Henry, policy director of Salvation of Social Justice, also highlighted the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities, from housing to education to access to health care. 

New Jersey has the fourth highest maternal mortality rate in the country, and Black women are seven times more likely than white women to die while giving birth. 

Some of the ARP money can be used to invest in health equity, Romans-Henry said, particularly maternal health care and harm reduction. She said state officials should invest in neighborhood-based maternal care centers in birthing deserts like Trenton. 

Several speakers also urged Murphy to replenish the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, a pool of money set aside for undocumented immigrants and other residents left out of pandemic relief. Advocates want nearly $1 billion allocated.

The fund, estimated at around $60 million, is expected help about 30,000 families. More than 400,000 undocumented residents live in New Jersey. 

“It’s a disgrace that half of New Jersey’s federal ARP fiscal recovery funds are still sitting unused and unallocated when families like mine are struggling to pay bills,” said Aida Mucha of Make the Road New Jersey, a Latino-advocacy and labor group. “I worked throughout the pandemic to deliver food to families in quarantine, but I was excluded from aid like so many immigrant essential workers.”

Undocumented immigrants bore the brunt of the pandemic, said Joe Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. They not only were excluded from unemployment checks and stimulus money, but many also had essential jobs where they were forced to weigh the risks of getting sick at work against how they’d financially support their family if they didn’t work, Johnson said. 

He also asked lawmakers to consider investing further in mental health for students, particularly as the effects of learning loss come to light. 

“We would love to see funds that are generally used for law enforcement and those types of efforts really rerouted towards mental health professionals to make sure our students are properly taken care of,” he said.

Other speakers discussed additional funds for special education services and kids who age out of the system, expanded language access programs, investments in health care especially in communities of color, and environmental programs like the Clean Energy Fund.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.