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What’s the Future of Affordable Housing?

New Jersey Future Op-Ed ButtonThe Record, Bergen County, Aug. 30, 2009

By PETER KASABACH

“New Jersey affordable housing is a success story.”

This is a statement you’re not likely to hear very much in the next few months — even though it happens to be true. Since the state Supreme Court’s landmark Mount Laurel ruling more than three decades ago, New Jersey has created more affordable housing than any other state except California.

A recent national report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy cited New Jersey’s particular success in addressing affordable housing. States across the nation are grappling with this issue, and many are turning to the Garden State as a recognized leader.

While our system for providing housing for families with low and moderate incomes is viewed as a national success story, it’s safe to say it’s not an easy system to like. This week’s appeals court ruling in the South Jersey municipality of Eastampton underscores that uneasiness.

There may be consensus that the state’s long-term prosperity depends on providing housing opportunities for hard-working people of modest means, that it’s better for people to be able to live near where they work, that concentrated poverty is a social and economic drain and that developing housing opportunities should not damage our environment or natural resources.

But there is by no means universal agreement on the means we should use to achieve the end of providing housing opportunities for people with low and moderate incomes throughout New Jersey. For the past 30 years, we’ve been engaged in an ongoing debate over the fairest and most efficient way to accomplish this.

Imperfections
While simple fairness suggests — and the courts require — that every town in New Jersey should provide its fair share of affordable housing, many do not. In part, that’s because the current system relies either on the goodwill of towns to zone and build affordable units, or on their voluntary participation in the state Council on Affordable Housing process in order to shield themselves from builders’ lawsuits that would otherwise force them to build affordable housing.

This untidy approach to creating affordable-housing opportunities raises a host of questions: Would it be fairer and more efficient to move from a voluntary system to a mandatory one? What’s the best and fairest way to calculate the minimum amount of affordable housing each town needs to provide? Is it better to have a complicated formula or perhaps a simple percentage of units for each town? Should zoning rules simply state that if residential units are built, then a certain percentage must be affordable to low- and moderate-income families?

New Jersey currently has a land-use plan — the State Development and Redevelopment Plan — that is supposed to guide growth and development into appropriate places and away from forests and farm fields. But the current affordable-housing system isn’t integrated into this land-use planning system, and at times is in direct conflict. Would it be fairer and more efficient to align our affordable-housing policies with our state planning policies, perhaps even integrating them into a single process?

Payment plans
Over the years, the costs of providing affordable housing have been divided among stakeholders in various ways. In some cases, homebuilders have constructed affordable units as part of market-rate developments, internally subsidizing the cost of these units. In other cases, municipalities have assessed affordable units at lower levels, forgoing a portion of property tax receipts. The state has provided subsidies to developers to reduce the price of certain units. Commercial developers have paid fees (until they were recently repealed). And we cannot forget that many households have paid significant portions of their income to buy or rent “affordable” units.

Are these fair and efficient ways to divide the cost of affordable housing? Should additional stakeholders contribute to the process? If so, who and how much?

So many difficult questions continue to arise from our efforts to ensure that families with low and moderate incomes have a place to live in New Jersey. The next few months, dominated by a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign, are more likely to produce rhetoric and posturing over this issue than thoughtful analysis.

The recent court case out of Eastampton affirming a 30-year stance that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial land use is an example of election-time hysterics. This simple case is being used to create panic among the public and elected officials, attempting to further demonize affordable housing and, even worse, making it seem that there is some new weapon ready to be aimed at municipalities.

Outside the political arena, however, efforts are under way to bring greater fairness and efficiency to our very complicated affordable-housing system. One such effort is being led by the Common Ground group, a collection of housing, planning, environmental and transportation advocacy organizations committed to improving the way we use and steward our land. This effort is being supported by the Coalition on Affordable Housing and the Environment, a 10-year old coalition dedicated to bridging environmental and affordable housing issues. A second effort is being led by the State League of Municipalities, a 94-year-old association of all 566 New Jersey municipalities.

Long time coming
Both of these endeavors view the creation of affordable-housing opportunities as critical to the long-term future of New Jersey, and both acknowledge that it will take time, collaboration and thoughtful dialogue to improve our current system.

These discussions will continue through the end of this year, setting the stage for the person who will occupy the governor’s office next January to play a leadership role in convening the stakeholders, creating a positive environment for analyzing our affordable-housing needs and crafting a fair and efficient system for meeting those needs. After 30 years of practice, we should be ready to take the next big step.

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