- Famartin/Wikimedia Commons
- Winfield, New Jersey, is home to less than 1,500 residents, but most of its properties have a 25-year waitlist.
- Residents in Winfield hold stake in the the local housing authority, which owns all of the buildings.
- Keeping its population small has helped Winfield continue to offer low rents. You can pay as little as $690 a month for a two-and-a-half room property.
- This guaranteed affordable housing comes with a few trade-offs – namely, an isolation from nearby communities.
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Patience is rewarded in Winfield, New Jersey, a township about an hour outside New York City.
To rent most homes in the quiet hamlet, prospective tenants must sit on a 25-year waitlist. That kind of exclusivity has helped preserve its charm.
By keeping its population low, Winfield has maintained some of the lowest rents in the state: around $690 a month for a two-and-a-half room property, and starting rents of $725 a month for a five-and-a-half room home.
Many of the township’s metal-clad one-to-two-story homes are painted pale blue or soft yellow. Residents have the option to build a porch if they like, and only two pets are allowed per unit. There’s also a daycare, community center, senior center, combined elementary and middle school, and shopping center with just two stores.
The lifestyle is quaint, but it’s also a bit of a luxury when you consider that rents in Winfield are cheaper than the average studio apartment in New Jersey.
There are also a few ways to get bumped up on the waitlist. Family members of one of Winfield’s 1,470 residents are given special priority as long as their relatives are in good standing with the local housing authority, Winfield Mutual Housing Corporation. The corporation owns all of Winfield’s 250-plus buildings, which together contain around 700 residences.
Another way to skirt the system is to apply for a “bachelor” – the township’s name for a studio apartment of around 415 square feet. Unlike the other properties, bachelors have a waiting list of around 3 to 4 years.
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Though Winfield’s system is relatively unique, it’s not uncommon for people to have to wait in long lines for affordable housing. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that nearly half of all housing vouchers in the US have a wait time of more than three years.
Many small Massachusetts towns have wait times that can last a decade. As of 2017, the wait time for low-income renters in Los Angeles was around 11 years, and the city is no longer accepting new applicants.
In Stockholm, it can take up to two decades to secure a rent-controlled property.
The big difference in Winfield is that the entire township is both affordable and waitlisted. Today, it functions like a miniature company, with each resident owning $7,500 equity stake in the Winfield Mutual Housing Corporation. The corporation foots the water bill for residents, but individuals are expected to procure their own gas, electric, and personal liability insurance.
Problems with this model almost prevented the township from being established in 1941. When Winfield was first proposed as a community for defense workers at the nearby Kearny shipyards, then-governor Charles Edison feared that it would become a “federal island” that would be absolved from traditional laws.
“Now Uncle Sam owns a town,” the Elizabeth Daily Journal wrote shortly after Winfield was founded. “Uncle Sam cannot tax himself or vote for himself. The occupants of houses cannot be taxed like a regular homeowner and he has promised them low monthly charges, but with all the benefits of life in town.”
Today, this guaranteed affordable housing comes with a few trade-offs – namely, an isolation from nearby communities.
“We don’t do business in Winfield,” Alex Smolenski, a real estate broker in a fellow New Jersey township, told NJ Advance Media. Smolenski said the land in Winfield is worth “many, many, millions of dollars,” but the properties are “essentially double-wide trailers.”
Trailers or not, prospective residents are eager to live there (Winfield attracts around 50 applications a month), and current residents have always been mindful of their luck.
“We are so tiny, that even state and county cartographers sometimes forget to put us on their maps,” the township’s official history reads. “Sure, we feel a bit miffed at times, but we then look across our ‘Green Acres’ and realize our blessing.”