Where Jobs Have Gone, Affordable Housing Hasn’t
By Tim Evans
The Council on Affordable Housing is charged with implementing the New Jersey Supreme Court’s directive that each of the state’s 566 municipalities provide its “fair share” of low- and moderate-income housing.
But some critics have argued that the current system scatters affordable housing too broadly, into places where development is not appropriate. They suggest instead that affordable housing be steered toward the state’s older urban centers, close to jobs, public transportation and existing infrastructure.
On the surface, this argument sounds compelling. It makes sense for those of limited means to live near their jobs, or at least near public transportation that can take them to their jobs. For some lower-income households, owning and operating a car is a luxury. For many others, a long car commute would take a large bite out of their total disposable income. In either case, being able to walk, bike or take transit to work would make life easier.
But scratch the surface and the argument reveals itself to be dependent on an outdated conception of the state’s job distribution pattern. Two key assumptions — that most job growth is taking place in the older urban centers where affordable housing is already concentrated, and that most jobs are near transit — do not hold up under scrutiny.
A New Jersey Future analysis finds that most of the places that already host the greatest numbers of affordable units — places like Newark, Paterson, Trenton and Camden, where many COAH critics suggest additional units should be directed — have, in fact, been losing jobs over the past two decades. Meanwhile, most job growth has taken place in suburban municipalities that are undersupplied with affordable housing.
Putting more affordable housing in urban centers would not only fail to address the need to put lower-income households closer to employment centers; it would also exacerbate the concentration of poverty, which research has shown is a powerful obstacle to economic advancement.
Steering affordable housing into cities and older boroughs would, in many cases, put that housing closer to the state’s public transportation network. But this largely doesn’t help, unless one’s job is in Manhattan or Newark. Most large employment centers within the state are not accessible by transit, as evidenced by the fact that only 5 percent of intra-New Jersey commuters ride public transit to work. For every transit-friendly place like Jersey City that is actually gaining jobs, there are a dozen growing employment centers –like Parsippany, Bridgewater, Cranbury, Plainsboro –that are nearly impossible to get to without a car, or without taking a very long bus ride with multiple transfers.
There is a legitimate case to be made for putting affordable housing where job growth is happening. But that does not necessarily translate to putting it in cities. Instead, it will mean creating new units in some suburban communities that have not supplied nearly enough of them in the past.