It’s an Affordable Housing Victory, But How Do We Win Over the Towns?

Let's get one thing clear: at least in New Jersey, we're having the affordable-housing-as-mandate discussion. The fact that so many taxpayers, elected officials, and housing advocates in the Garden State […]

Let's get one thing clear: at least in New Jersey, we're having the affordable-housing-as-mandate discussion. The fact that so many taxpayers, elected officials, and housing advocates in the Garden State are committed to implementing some sort of affordable housing set-aside as development and jobs increase is a good thing.

That said, it's time to realize that a uniform housing rule might not be the way to go.

On Thursday, Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law legislation that is being touted by proponents of the bill as a major step forward in ensuring that representation from all income brackets can be part of the same community.

In addition to creating an affordable housing trust fund, the new law also eliminates RCAs, or Regional Contribution Agreements, which are typically used by wealthier localities who send their affordable-housing requirements by way of a financial contribution, to, most often, a nearby poorer community. Naturally, critics of RCAs claim that all towns, not just rich ones, have moral obligations to supply affordable housing within their borders.

The RCA elimination is a hallmark of the incumbency of Democratic Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., and the bill signing took place in Mount Laurel Township — the namesake of the original landmark lawsuit that resulted in a State Supreme Court ruling requiring all towns to provide affordable housing. What made the event all the more symbolic was that Corzine & Co. brandished their signing pens at the Ethel Lawrence Homes, named after one of Mount Laurel's original litigants.

In order to finance affordable housing, the bill also mandates a 2.5 percent commercial developer fee that is gauged by the value of new construction. The fee is expected to raise about $80 million per year and has the support of the New Jersey Builders Association, a trade association. The group has also endorsed Corzine's plan to increase affordable housing and apartments by 100,000 units by 2018.

At the bill signing, Roberts touted the amendments:

New Jersey's affordable housing laws have failed to live up to the promise of providing home for low- and moderate-income residents while having the insidious side effect of concentrating poverty in our inner cities. [T]he state's almost barren affordable housing landscape from one of lost opportunities to one of hope and promise for thousands of families.

As Rooflines contributor John Atlas writes, RCAs have commonly been charged with concentrating poverty in the inner city and with perpetuating segregation. This is mostly indisputable, but towns are still trying to wrap their brains around the new bill. In New Jersey, where home rule is, sadly, still the rule, some localities are balking.

New Jersey's Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, an arm of the State Department of Community Affairs in June enacted its latest regulations as part of the ongoing Mount Laurel agreement. In those regulations, developers must provide one affordable unit for every four market-rate units built. Further, for commercial development, one affordable unit must be built for every 16 new jobs created by commercial development.

Towns notwithstanding, academic institutions and hospitals are not very pleased with the latter regulation.

But by way of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, 161 towns have thus far contributed more than $80,000 to help finance a legal challenge against COAH's rules.

The challenge is not directly related to the bill Corzine signed last week, but it does point to a fundamental difference in philosophy between the Legislature and more than 20 percent of the state's 566 (or 567 depending on who's counting) municipalities. Opponents of the latest affordable-housing rules worry that costs associated with housing requirements would be levied upon the taxpayer. A League lawyer told The Star-Ledger that COAH's calculations were “fatally flawed,” and that they should be “thrown out,” citing worries that towns would be forced to pay for affordable housing. Under the regulations, towns would have to make sure developers comply.

Moreover, there is the matter of workforce housing. If these mandates were only for workforce housing, that would be a different story, but the affordable housing law requires towns to market affordable housing affirmatively — meaning anyone who qualifies is eligible for the housing — not just people who work or have lived in the town for a generation — but also people who qualify from elsewhere. We should be meeting our local needs first, and then market housing affirmatively. Have a waiting list, have a local town preference, and then move forward.

Now what about ethnic and racial diversity? It's immensely important, but poorer people — no matter the ethnicity — who work within the community should have the preference for local affordable housing. It makes sense environmentally, it makes sound transportation sense, it makes sound smart growth sense.

While the League's complaint will not be heard until the fall, I maintain that the state legislators and other proponents of COAH and the recent Corzine bill should travel the state, recognizing these concerns, while explaining the vast social and long-term economic benefit of housing low-income and working-class residents close to where they work.

Just like Corzine and Roberts held a symbolic bill-signing in Mount Laurel to make clear the importance of the housing bill, they need to, at the very least, make clear why this is important for residents who worry — like the blue-collar workers who can't afford to live near their places of employment — that they too will be taxed out of their neighborhoods.

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