Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces


New Jersey Future Blogrss

Tracking Progress on Environmental Justice

June 15th, 2021 by Tim Evans

The Murphy administration has made environmental justice a priority, pledging to end the siting of environmental hazards in neighborhoods where low-income people and/or people of color live—and especially neighborhoods that are characterized by the presence of both low-income households and people of color. In September 2020 the Environmental Justice Law was passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Murphy to protect disadvantaged communities from further exposure to environmentally hazardous land uses.

The law defines “overburdened communities,” which will benefit from the new protections. An overburdened community is any census block group in which any of the following conditions is met:

  1. at least 35 percent of households qualify as low-income households (at or below twice the poverty threshold, as determined by the United States Census Bureau); or
  2. at least 40 percent of residents identify as minority or as members of a State-recognized tribal community; or
  3. at least 40 percent of households have limited English proficiency (without an adult that speaks English “very well,” according to the United States Census Bureau).

The law is written to address the question of where not to locate certain types of facilities in the future. However, the administration has also indicated that it will prioritize the improvement of environmental conditions in overburdened communities when making decisions about where to invest in clean energy and other technologies designed to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, many of which will result in reductions in traditional pollutants, as well. The administration seems to want to use the newly defined concept of an overburdened community in a more proactive sense, rather than an exclusively reactive one.

One of the first situations in which this commitment will be tested is in the spending of proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program. Participating states are required to use the proceeds from CO2 allowance auctions for programs that are designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of clean energy sources, but it is up to each state to decide exactly where (geographically) this money will be spent. In theory, there is nothing to stop a state from spending its RGGI money mainly on charging stations for electric vehicles in upscale suburbs, for example, which would do nothing to improve conditions in the communities that have historically suffered the most severe pollution impacts. But, New Jersey has already taken steps to assure the public that this will not happen.

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection, which is coordinating efforts among the three state agencies1 charged with spending RGGI proceeds, has set up a RGGI Climate Investments Dashboard, where information about projects receiving RGGI funding will be made publicly available. To date, 19 projects have been added to the dashboard, all of which involve electrified municipal vehicles of various types (garbage trucks, shuttle buses, school buses, etc.). As more programs are finalized and application periods close, information about the awardees will be added.

The dashboard allows projects to be filtered and displayed according to various subsetting criteria, one of which is whether the project is located in an environmental justice (EJ) community. The overburdened community block groups are also illustrated on a map on the dashboard, and users can examine the locations of funded projects with respect to EJ community boundaries. Thus far, all projects have been tagged with the EJ flag because, in each case, the electric vehicle will be operating in a municipality that contains at least one EJ block group. However, the assignment of EJ status for mobile projects is not as straightforward as is the case for projects having a fixed location, in which case a building or other permanent facility is clearly either inside or outside an EJ block group. Electric vehicles, by contrast, may only spend part of their time in EJ block groups.

The development of tracking metrics is an ongoing process. New metrics may be added to the dashboard in the future, and others that do not lend themselves to graphic display may be tracked behind the scenes. In particular, if a methodology can be developed to distinguish the uses and benefits of non-stationary projects, such as electric vehicles, between EJ and non-EJ areas, New Jersey Future will continue to encourage state agencies to officially adopt such metrics and make results public. More generally, we will continue to provide feedback on proposed metrics for tracking progress on environmental justice as more RGGI-funded programs gear up and are added to the dashboard. As the dashboard user manual says, “The public needs to know how administering agencies are investing RGGI proceeds and what benefits are being achieved from those investments.”

While these investments are taking place, the State is contemplating joining the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI). TCI is similar to RGGI but with a focus on the transportation sector. TCI discourages fossil fuel consumption in the transportation sector while generating funds that can be invested in cleaning the transportation sector, such as investments in alternatives to driving. Having good metrics and a tracking system in place, as they are doing with RGGI, will put the State in a good position to invest TCI proceeds wisely should they come to pass.

1 The Board of Public Utilities and the Economic Development Authority are the other two agencies.

All Boats Rise: Investing in Climate Resilience & Communities

June 15th, 2021 by Missy Rebovich

The science is clear: climate change is here, and its threats are only going to grow more pronounced. But, carefully coordinated efforts can not only protect New Jerseyans from these threats, but can help spur economic activity, as well, making our state that much stronger. That was the message from four senior-level officials from Governor Murphy’s administration at the 2021 Planning and Redevelopment Conference, hosted by New Jersey Future and the NJ Chapter of the American Planning Association. New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Tim Sullivan, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso, and New Jersey Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy Director Jane Cohen detailed how planning and redevelopment will play an important role in achieving Governor Murphy’s ambitious climate change goals at the All Boats Rise: Investing in Climate Resilience & Communities session moderated by Kathleen Ellis, New Jersey Future Board Chair.

It’s easy to think about the physical threats of climate change to our environment, such as sea level rise and the urban heat island effect, but climate change is also damaging the economic health of the state, Cohen explained. All of these forces are having a disproportionate impact on New Jersey’s vulnerable communities. That’s why Governor Murphy created the Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy, charged with addressing climate change, planning for a clean energy future, and transitioning to a green economy while prioritizing equity. Both this office and the NJ Council on the Green Economy are working to ensure close coordination between the State’s departments and agencies, many of which will play crucial roles in the design and implementation of climate change solutions. According to Cohen, “the purpose is to be intentional about how we transition to a green economy to make sure that the workforce development opportunities and economic opportunities are going to folks transitioning from traditional energy jobs into family-sustaining jobs in this new economy.”

Through the Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), Governor Murphy recently released the New Jersey Climate Change Resilience Strategy, which lays out the Governor’s approach to climate change adaptation policy. LaTourette summarized the State’s larger policy as reducing pollution and responding to climate change, both of which can be addressed on parallel and complementary tracks. Of particular concern to the NJDEP is that New Jersey municipalities understand the importance of planning for the future and use forward-looking science to determine the areas that are unsuitable for development, either because they will be underwater or because people will not have a safe way out in a disaster. This can be achieved, according to LaTourette, through the State Planning Commission center designation process and by offering incentives only to developments that have carefully considered climate risks.

The coupling of a climate change strategy with an economic strategy represents a paradigm shift in how we think about climate change policy. Sullivan explained that the administration “reject[s] the false choice that is sometimes promulgated by others that you can pursue sustainability, an environmental strategy, and an energy strategy that is forward-thinking and progressive or you can grow your economy,” but not both. Sullivan is ensuring that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s investments are not going to developments that do not consider climate change—it’s a bad investment of taxpayer dollars. Sullivan sees New Jersey’s approach to climate change as presenting an enormous opportunity to grow our economy. Offshore wind, solar, and electric retrofits of developments will create a wealth of jobs at all levels. 

These investments go beyond housing and businesses. Fiordaliso explained that New Jersey has invested $5 billion in infrastructure upgrades, maintenance, and mitigation projects since 2012, but more severe storms will continue to cause outages and wreak havoc on our infrastructure if we don’t do something to mitigate the impacts of climate change. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that the energy we use comes from clean sources. The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is hard at work to get New Jersey to 100% clean energy by 2050, an undertaking that will protect our state while expanding the job market. Additionally, BPU has an office of clean energy equity to ensure that all communities in New Jersey have the opportunity to participate in what Fiordaliso calls “the clean energy revolution.” 

The panelists all emphasized that successful implementation of the climate change resilience strategy relies on close collaboration and a strong focus on equity and environmental justice. New Jersey Future will continue to offer input regarding the strategies and plans and looks forward to their implementation.

New Jersey Future and Partners Launch Lead-Free NJ

June 15th, 2021 by Jael Davis

Lead poisoning from myriad sources impacts thousands of New Jersey children every year, causing long term medical and behavioral issues that do not always resolve when lead exposure ceases. Exposure is particularly common in communities of color and low-income communities due to systemic inequities. Recent highly-publicized examples of lead-contaminated drinking water have drawn attention to this important issue, but more work needs to be done.

That’s why New Jersey Future, along with numerous partners including policy advocates and community members and organizations, launched Lead-Free NJ. This new collaborative seeks to mitigate the prevalence and impact of lead contamination across the state by pursuing an action-oriented advocacy agenda. 

The collaborative’s goals include:

  • Holistic lead remediation—eliminate childhood lead hazards within 10 years.
  • Equitable policy change—Achieve adoption of proactive, equitable state and local policies that ensure that our environment is lead-safe and our children are unburdened by lead.
  • Empowered communities—Build the capacity and power of grassroots groups and affected communities.

Join us as we work together to make New Jersey lead free!

Hoboken’s Focus on Vision Zero Makes Streets Safe for Everyone

May 6th, 2021 by Tim Evans

The transportation-focused website Streetsblog recently turned a spotlight on Hoboken, praising the New Jersey city for its success in eliminating pedestrian deaths. The blog says that Hoboken “shows what can be accomplished when a municipality really focuses on the zero of Vision Zero.” The term “Vision Zero” generally refers to the goal of reducing pedestrian fatalities to zero. In most places with such plans, the goal remains aspirational, but Hoboken has made it a reality.

Photo of Washington Street in Hoboken with bike lane, walk ways, green infrastructure, and pedestrians.

Washington Street, Hoboken, New Jersey

Designed for People Before Cars

Hoboken benefits from several advantages, compared to other parts of the state and the country. Like most urban centers and first-generation “streetcar” suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest, Hoboken experienced its initial growth spurt in the decades before the automobile became the default mode of transportation in the U.S. Despite its population rebound over the last three decades, Hoboken still has fewer residents today (52,677 as of the Census Bureau’s 2019 municipal population estimates) than it did in 1930 (59,261). Hoboken is inherently pedestrian-oriented, because it was built during an era in which everyone was essentially a pedestrian, either walking around town or walking to and from public transportation.

Even within New Jersey, Hoboken’s street network is more grid-like and finer-grained than those of most other cities. Its median block size of 2.83 acres is small enough to rank Hoboken number 42 among the state’s 565 municipalities, with respect to block size (the median municipality has a median block size of 5.18 acres). Small blocks with frequent intersections create multiple routes for pedestrians, cyclists, and car drivers, as opposed to branching networks, which inhibit direct routes and force people into their vehicles and onto regional arterial roads. Additionally, the short distances between intersections that are characteristic of street grids tend to limit vehicle speeds, enhancing pedestrian safety.

Conversely, rapidly-growing metropolitan areas in the Sunbelt have developed with the automobile at the core of their urban fabrics. Their streets were designed with the primary goal of moving cars rapidly across town, treating pedestrians as an afterthought at best. Data corroborate this trend; the metropolitan areas with the highest pedestrian death rates, according to Smart Growth America’s Dangerous By Design 2021 report, are predominantly located in the Sunbelt.


Pursuing the Vision with Action

Still, Hoboken didn’t accomplish zero traffic deaths solely because of its pre-World War II development pattern. Its laudable achievement is the result of a deliberate and sustained effort, the centerpiece of which is the redesign of a 16-block stretch of Washington Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. While Washington Street serves local shopping needs, the presence of Hoboken Terminal (one of the state’s busiest rail transit stations) at the corridor’s southern end generates additional pedestrian traffic by attracting visitors and commuters to and from elsewhere in the New York metropolitan area. 

New Jersey Future awarded the project a Smart Growth Award in 2020 for capitalizing on the city’s well-connected street grid by adding design features that seek to improve the pedestrian experience. These tactics are replicable in any mixed-use downtown, so numerous New Jersey towns can learn from Hoboken’s achievements. Hoboken’s enhancements to pedestrian safety include:

  • Curbside rain gardens, which capture stormwater, aesthetically improve the streetscape, and create buffers between pedestrians and moving traffic
  • Curb extensions, which reduce the width of intersections, limit the speed of turning vehicles, and shorten crosswalks (consequently reducing the amount of time that pedestrians need to cross the street).
  • Traffic signal improvements, including the incorporation of pedestrian-only phases and the addition of pedestrian countdown timers, which allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely.
  • Efforts to increase the visibility of bus stops in order to alert drivers to the presence of people boarding or exiting buses
  • Striping new bike lanes, which makes drivers more aware of the presence of cyclists and encourages cycling.
  • Designating loading zones for trucks and other delivery vehicles, which reduces the frequency with which these vehicles double-park. This alleviates a major safety hazard for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, and the rise of online shopping will likely make parking for delivery vehicles an even bigger issue in the future.

Benefits of Walkability

Getting people out of their cars for local trips produces numerous societal benefits: less air pollution, less time wasted behind the wheel, and regular exercise that can help ward off the many health problems that are symptomatic of a sedentary lifestyle. For older or disabled community members who cannot drive, living in a walkable town means that the loss of a driver’s license does not have to result in the loss of quality of life. And, of course, reducing car travel also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an important climate-change mitigation measure.

Fortunately, there is strong demand for in-town living and a “car-light”–or even car-free–lifestyle. Furthermore, New Jersey contains many centers with the “good bones” of well-connected street grids. But, to translate these assets into substantive behavioral changes, people must feel safe when walking. Hoboken should serve as a statewide–as well as national–model for how to turn Vision Zero into a reality.

A New Housing Model for New Jersey

May 4th, 2021 by Guest Author

Photo of AIA NJ President Joshua Zinder and a photo of a buildingBy Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP
2021 President, AIA New Jersey Chapter
Managing Partner, JZA+D

Living and working in Princeton, it’s easy to see what makes our town special. My architectural work here reflects our community’s desire to retain its unique character. But Princeton – like many municipalities across the state – needs to grow to stay economically viable, which ideally means adding density instead of sprawling outward. The word “density” often makes my neighbors worry, because they want to preserve the character of our tree-lined streets with detached single-family homes. Also, there is a pervasive fear that the arrival of lower-income residents could reduce property values – a fear arising in part from misconceptions about affordable housing.

Market-rate options are unattainable statewide for large swaths of the population, with teachers, first responders and other essential members of our communities priced out. What neighborhoods like mine need, and what architects are trying to identify and promote, is a new model for housing that addresses this “missing middle housing” gap. In brief, this term coined by urban planner Daniel Parolek refers to “house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods.”

Growth is inevitable, and the alternative for most of our municipalities is economic and cultural stagnation. The desire to keep a developer from putting up a large, ungainly apartment complex on a quiet residential corridor is entirely understandable, but the most common alternative is locating such developments in areas far from town centers, which fails to achieve the goal: walkable, sustainable, affordable, and diverse communities that can sustain economic growth. These apartment complexes are often the only entry-level option for low-to-moderate income renters moving to take essential jobs in places like Princeton. Ironically, even these commonly face opposition to approvals, thanks in part to high court rulings.

These qualities – walkable, sustainable, diverse – are typically associated with the best of urban living. City dwellers, especially younger ones, appreciate the socially dynamic and vibrant qualities of the urban lifestyle and seek some measure of them when they move to a smaller town. And residents of smaller towns appreciate those qualities, too. Who doesn’t like having a greater variety in options for dining, shopping, and entertainment? These folks, our neighbors, just need reasons to stop resisting growth.

As proponents of addressing missing middle housing, many of my colleagues in New Jersey’s architecture profession are looking for opportunities to devise creative, attractive solutions for promoting density and affordability. As 2021 President of AIA-New Jersey, our statewide professional organization, I have made promoting this effort a priority. Our goal is to identify and promote strategies for adding attainable housing units, weaving them into the fabric of our neighborhoods and leaving no tool left unused in the toolbox.

Here in Princeton several solutions have emerged – many of them approved and moving forward or completed – each carefully conceived to retain or even enhance the existing neighborhood character and offering a view of Princeton’s sustainable future. A ten-unit mixed-income development has opened in a former Masonic meeting house, the interior completely transformed while the historic façade was restored and the visual impact on the block minimized. Nearby a six-unit residence will add several floors to a one-story commercial structure, with a profile that steps back from the street as it rises and a new restaurant or retail amenity on the first floor, adding social dynamism as well as much-needed residential units.

Other strategies include redeveloping existing properties to add accessory dwellings or multi-unit structures on the rear of lots, retaining the familiar neighborhood feel. Downtown Princeton has seen recent activity in mixed-use corridors to redevelop residential units above street-level shops, activating our most walkable neighborhood.

And just a few blocks away plans are under way for a major municipally oriented development that will combine a variety of building heights and architectural styles. This optimal missing-middle housing mix will sit within a campus that will be open and permeable to pedestrian traffic, with publicly accessible spaces around the buildings offering community value. This campus will create a bridge between a neighborhood of single-family detached homes on one side and the historic Witherspoon-Jackson district (largely two-family houses) on the other, adding energy and walkability to a large swath of the town center while reflecting the area’s history and culture.

In the meantime, architects and professionals in related fields are working on ways to streamline how these solutions get implemented. Outdated zoning processes should be replaced with more responsive and nimble alternatives, allowing development to move more quickly and to everyone’s advantage.

The existing fabric of our cities and towns can and should fill the missing middle, rather than building midrise developments that lack any sense of scale or context or are located outside of municipal centers. The latter has served us poorly so far, while the former is a path to sustainable, successful economic growth throughout New Jersey.

Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C is managing partner of design firm JZA+D in Princeton and 2021 AIA-New Jersey president. Architects are creative professionals, educated, trained, and experienced in the art and science of building design, and licensed to practice architecture. Their designs respond to client needs, wants and vision, protect public safety, provide economic value, are innovative, inspire and contribute positively to the community and the environment. Founded in 1857, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) consistently works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Through a dynamic network of more than 250 chapters and more than 95,000 member architects and design professionals, the AIA advocates for public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing. Members adhere to a code of ethics and conduct to ensure the highest professional standards. The AIA provides members with tools and resources to assist them in their careers and business as well as engaging civic and government leaders and the public to find solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation, and world. The organization’s local chapter, AIA New Jersey, has served as the voice of the architectural profession in the Garden State since 1900. Based in Trenton, AIA New Jersey has over 2,000 members across six sections. For more information, please visit

New Jersey Future Urges Congressional Delegation to Secure Funding for Lead Service Line Replacement

April 30th, 2021 by Gary Brune

New Jersey Future sent the following letter on April 27, 2021 to New Jersey’s Congressional Delegation recommending a federal funding allocation to support lead service line replacement programs:

As Congress debates various proposals to increase federal aid to address the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water, it is important to consider potential allocation formulas, as different choices may drastically alter New Jersey’s share.

New Jersey is estimated to have 350,000 lead service lines (LSLs), the fifth highest total in the country, which would cost an estimated $2.3 billion to replace. These figures are based on a 2016 analysis sponsored by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and assume an average cost of $6,700 per LSL replacement. Federal aid to offset these costs is vital, particularly for fiscally distressed cities with a high incidence of lead contamination.

Given the $45 billion recommended in the American Jobs Plan, President Biden’s infrastructure investment proposal, listed below are three examples of how this aid might be distributed:

  1. Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF)

    Based on New Jersey’s 1.7% share of federal SRF grants for drinking water projects, distribution of LSL replacement funds through this program would yield $765 million to the state. (As noted in the Jersey Water Works blog post, the state’s share of federal drinking water grants has declined over time and is significantly smaller than it should be.)  

  2. Population

    New Jersey accounts for 2.7% of the national population, which would result in $1.2 billion of federal aid.

  3. Share of Lead Service Lines

    Based on AWWA’s estimate of a total of 6.1 million LSLs across the country, New Jersey’s estimated portion (350,000 LSLs) represents 5.7% of the national total, which would result in $2.6 billion of federal aid.

New Jersey would obviously benefit from a formula that emphasizes the number of known and suspected LSLs in each state. Additionally, cities such as Newark, which recently invested local and state funds to completely remove LSLs as a public health measure, should be eligible for reimbursement from the federal aid provided.

As Congress deliberates this issue, your influence and voice will be critical to ensuring that New Jersey children and residents are adequately protected.

NJDEP Releases Guidance on Stormwater Utilities, a Tool for Equitable Stormwater Management

April 12th, 2021 by Brianne Callahan

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) recently released guidance on the creation of stormwater utilities, a tool newly available to New Jersey communities to help mitigate flooding and pollution problems. Stormwater utilities are widely considered to be the most equitable way to address stormwater throughout the nation. To learn more about the guidance, and stormwater utilities in general, check out the  New Jersey Stormwater Resource Center. The resource center, created by New Jersey Future, is a one-stop-shop, housing technical legal and financial information, case studies, and helpful guidance on stormwater solutions, community process, and public engagement. Sign up to receive regular stormwater utility updates. 

Street rain

Why a stormwater utility?

Climate change and increased development continue to plague New Jersey residents. Increased rainfall has resulted in additional stormwater runoff, leading to more frequent flash flooding, street closings, property damage, and infrastructure failure. Thankfully, solutions like green infrastructure and upgrades to aging and inadequate gray infrastructure can prevent these negative effects. Unfortunately, these measures can be expensive, and without a dedicated funding mechanism, these solutions are often left untapped. One way to fund these solutions is through a stormwater utility. A stormwater utility is a dedicated funding mechanism, specifically enacted to address stormwater issues. It is similar to a water or sewer utility, and fees are collected based on the amount of stormwater a property generates, which is typically a function of how much hard or impervious surfaces are on a property. Throughout the United States, nearly 2000 communities have turned to stormwater utilities to address their flooding and water quality issues.

In 2019, Governor Murphy signed into law the Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, which enables New Jersey localities to implement stormwater utilities. The act is permissive in nature, allowing but not requiring local governments to act. It requires the NJDEP to provide non-binding technical advice through guidance housed on its website. In reviewing the guidance, we’d like to share four important takeaways:

  1. Fee Calculations—Fee calculations can be tailored to your community’s needs, and there are many different options that are available under the statute as long as they are based on the amount of impervious surfaces on a property.
  2. Credits—Credits can be issued if a property owner decreases their generation of stormwater through installation of rain gardens, pervious pavement, green roofs, etc. A locality can structure its credits as it sees fit.
  3. Allowable Costs—The guidance lists costs that are eligible to be funded through a stormwater utility. Check this section of the site when determining your level of service needs.
  4. Asset Management—Many costs associated with developing an asset management plan may be financed through the New Jersey Water Bank, which provides low-cost financing for environmental infrastructure projects.

More information about NJDEP’s Stormwater Utility Guidance can be found on its website.

Don’t miss out on learning about this important tool for equitable, dedicated, flexible and stable stormwater funding! Sign up on the New Jersey Stormwater Resource Center to stay informed about developments in stormwater utilities, including key policy updates. Development of the resource center was guided by local engineers, utilities, attorneys, government officials, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection staff, and the Flood Defense Coalition, to ensure that it addresses local needs. 

For any questions about the resource center, or stormwater utilities in general, please feel free to contact Brianne Callahan  (bcallahanatnjfuturedotorg)  .

Single-Family Zoning: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

April 12th, 2021 by Tim Evans

cul de sac photo New Jersey is a home-rule state. Decision-making authority about land use and development—what kinds of buildings are allowed to be built where—rests with municipal governments, as long as they abide by environmental regulations and road safety standards that are set by state agencies. In particular, municipalities have the power to enact zoning codes that define the parts of town in which residential, commercial, industrial, and other land-use types will be permitted or prohibited.

While zoning initially arose as a way to keep noxious land uses (factories and other businesses that create noise, odors, or pollution) away from neighborhoods where people live, it has evolved to include much more prescriptive rules as to what types of housing are permitted in what types of buildings and whether homes and non-polluting businesses are allowed to locate in the same neighborhood.

Fiscal zoning

In a practice known as fiscal zoning, municipalities often try to use their zoning power to favorably affect their balance sheet. Since school costs are typically the largest component of local government expenditures, and since most homes don’t come anywhere close to generating enough property tax revenue to offset the costs of educating whatever school-age children might live in them, many local leaders have concluded that the secret to keeping property taxes down is to limit the amount of residential development that happens in town. Instead, they seek to attract office parks, regional shopping centers, warehouses, hotels, and other land-use types that pay big property tax bills but don’t generate school kids. These incentives are sharpened by the fact that the units of competition (i.e. school districts) for the finite number of large revenue-generating land uses are so small; there are simply not enough malls and office parks for each of New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts to host enough of them. Since the odds of scoring one of these property-tax cash cows are low, keeping out housing becomes the next best strategy for avoiding property tax hikes.

Single-family homes dominate

While municipalities cannot legally zone out residential development altogether, they have considerable leverage in laying out what types of housing they would like to see developed. This often means single-family detached homes, preferably on large lots. Zoning for this type of housing has two advantages from a fiscal standpoint:

  • It minimizes the total number of housing units that can be built on a piece of land of a given size, and hence limits the number of potential new school children who might end up living on that land once it is developed.
  • It ensures that the artificially-restricted number of homes that get built on that land will be expensive, as homebuilders seek to maximize their profit per unit, having been denied the option of earning less profit per unit but making it up in volume. More expensive homes work to the advantage of the municipality because their property tax bills will come closer to paying for any school children who live in the house than is the case for lower-valued units, especially attached housing like townhouses and apartment buildings.

Having made these calculations, many municipalities do their best to discourage multi-family housing, and the results show up in statewide data about housing variety. Nationally, 61% of all housing units are single-family detached. New Jersey’s rate is actually somewhat lower, at 53%, thanks to many parts of the state (the cities and older towns) having been built before the age of the automobile, when rowhouses and apartment buildings were much more common. But single-family detached is the default housing type even in most of New Jersey. The SF-detached percentage exceeds 80% in a full one-third of New Jersey’s municipalities (188 out of 565), and it exceeds the national percentage in 361 municipalities. In only 124 municipalities is more than half the housing stock something other than single-family detached.

Exclusionary zoning

A housing, taxation, and public education ecosystem that incentivizes the underproduction of housing in general, and that tends to produce mostly single-family detached housing when it does produce new units, will tend to put upward pressure on both home prices and rents, as supply fails to keep pace with demand. New Jersey’s median home value of $348,8001 is the seventh-highest in the nation, behind other notoriously expensive states Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, and is nearly half again as high as the national median of $240,500. For renters, New Jersey is the fourth most expensive state; its median rent of $1,376 trails only Hawaii, California, and Maryland.

High-priced housing prevents households of modest means from being able to live in large swaths of the state. They are effectively excluded from towns with good schools and convenient access to job centers, which is why this practice is often referred to as “exclusionary zoning.” The failure to provide a variety of housing options that are affordable to a range of households amounts to de facto discrimination by income. Lower-income households are increasingly confined to the handful of cities and towns with older housing stocks that feature higher-density housing options. Concentrated poverty is on the rise in New Jersey over the last two decades, despite concerns about “gentrification” in some urban neighborhoods.

Whether incidental or intentional, geographic stratification by income often also results in segregation by race, since non-white households tend to have lower incomes than white households. In New Jersey, median household income for white households is $85,423; for Black households, it is $51,309; for Hispanic households, $54,160. New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the country, despite being one of the most diverse states as measured by state-level statistics. Our reluctance to produce a wider variety of housing options in a wider variety of places ensures that the effects of past discriminatory housing practices, even though those practices have since been outlawed, continue to define the complexion of our residential landscape today.

Young adults priced out

In addition to inhibiting upward mobility for many non-white and lower-income households, exclusionary zoning also imperils the future of New Jersey’s economy by making the state prohibitively expensive for young adults entering the workforce and seeking to move out on their own. New Jersey has the highest rate among the 50 states of people aged 18 to 34 living with their parents—45%, well above the national rate of 34%. This situation is untenable; eventually, young people tire of bunking with parents, and if they can’t afford their own place in New Jersey, some will look elsewhere. This is likely a major reason that New Jersey has been losing so many Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000, roughly) to other states. The fact that out-migrating Millennials have been gravitating to other metro areas that offer the kind of mixed-use, walkable communities they favor—something New Jersey also offers—suggests that many of them would seek these live-work-play communities closer to home if they weren’t so expensive.

Zoning reform

New Jersey is not the only place suffering from a housing market that can’t produce enough supply to meet demand—look again at the lists of states with higher home values or rents than New Jersey. But some of those places are now confronting the problem head-on. A growing number of states and cities are considering the possibility of abolishing residential zoning that permits nothing other than single-family detached housing, and a few individual places have actually taken the leap.

Strong Towns recently undertook an excellent review of where this movement is meeting with some success (“Will 2021 Be the Year Zoning Reform Reaches Critical Mass?”). The list includes some surprising places: City-level plans are addressing the issue in Atlanta and Charlotte (two Southern cities with histories of legally-enshrined segregation), and state-level legislation aimed at requiring local government to allow for greater diversity of housing options has been introduced in Utah, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, the latter two of which are similar to New Jersey in being carved up into many small fiefdoms that jealously guard their authority over land-use decisions. 

In California, a state-level effort at requiring cities to allow higher housing density near transit stations failed last year, but legislators continue to advance various efforts to encourage more housing development by placing new restrictions or requirements on local governments’ zoning powers. A few individual California cities have pressed ahead with zoning reform on their own, including San Jose, Sacramento, and Berkeley. Tying single-family zoning back to residential segregation, the Strong Towns article cites Berkeley as a particularly noteworthy addition to the list of places that are rolling it back, given that the city was the first in the United States to adopt it, back in 1916. And while California has thus far failed to tackle single-family zoning statewide, it has loosened housing restrictions in a different way by relaxing rules around the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), setting off what CityLab calls “a backyard apartment boom.” 

Minneapolis went all the way in 2018 and abolished single-family zoning citywide, along with a few other changes designed to allow increased housing density. At the state level, the only clear success so far is Oregon (which ranks one slot above New Jersey among the states with the highest median home values). In 2019, Oregon passed a law that requires all cities of at least 25,000 population to allow two-, three-, and four-unit structures, as well as townhouses (“single-family attached” in Census Bureau parlance), in any neighborhood previously zoned only for single-family detached homes.

If the cumulative effects of New Jersey’s 565 individual municipalities making development decisions, many of which involve suppressing new residential development, are adding up to a suboptimal situation at the state level—namely, high housing prices and a shortage of the right kind of housing units in the right places—then perhaps the state government needs to take action in the interest of the economic health of the state as a whole. Ultimately, local governments’ power to regulate land development is delegated to them by the state, and the state has the power to reel some of that power back in if it is being used irresponsibly or in a way that is harming the state’s interests at the macro level. Oregon has pointed to what such action might look like, and although California’s failure (for now, at least) at the state level illustrates the difficulty involved, it was enough to start the conversation and to spur some individual cities to take action on their own. New Jersey should follow Oregon’s and California’s lead and take advantage of the growing national momentum toward zoning reform, to at least begin a discussion about how such reforms might work in New Jersey. Otherwise, high home prices and rents will likely continue to chase people out of the state.

1 As of the 2019 1-year American Community Survey

School District Consolidation Is More Than Just a Cost-Saving Measure

April 12th, 2021 by Tim Evans

children running to school

Regionalizing school districts could also help increase housing options and make New Jersey a less segregated state.

Sen. Sweeney’s school district regionalization bill is aimed at consolidating school districts that are currently already engaged in some sort of sharing arrangement (as when multiple K-8 districts all send to a regional high school with its own district). The bill sees consolidation primarily as a cost-saving measure and, in addition to cutting down on administrative overhead by streamlining the number of superintendents and support staff, increasing the geographic size of school districts could indeed also produce some economies of scale. As population growth patterns change, students in a larger district could be reallocated to classroom space across different schools within the district in a more efficient way than is possible for smaller districts, which might otherwise need to construct new buildings while a building in a neighboring district sits half empty. Larger districts would also be able to purchase vehicles, equipment, and supplies in larger quantities and allocate them to individual schools more efficiently than if a group of smaller districts had to make these decisions separately. Basically, by reducing the duplication of costs, regional consolidations would result in lower education costs, helping to rein in New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

Resistance to Housing

But cost savings are not the only reason to support this bill. New Jersey’s fragmented system of school districts does more than just make property taxes higher than they need to be. It also results in the unhealthy local practice of “fiscal zoning,” in which municipalities compete for large property-tax revenue-generating land uses like office parks and regional malls while doing their best to minimize residential development and the school-age children who might move into it, in the hopes of keeping property taxes low (school costs are by far the biggest component of local government expenditures). When every municipality individually has an incentive to court commercial and industrial development while discouraging housing, the cumulative result is a statewide housing market that fails to produce enough supply to meet demand, pushing home prices upward.

The fact that the units of competition—the school districts—in this “ratables chase” are so small means that there are nowhere near enough office parks and malls to go around, so the divergence in fortunes between the “winners” and the “losers” in this scramble for commercial tax base can be quite stark. The quality of a child’s education should not depend so dramatically on whether they live on the same side of the municipal border as the nearest mall. Enlarging the geographic scope of individual districts through regionalization would distribute the finite supply of big commercial tax revenue generators more fairly among districts and would mitigate the resistance to residential development on the part of individual districts by spreading the costs of residential development over a broader area.

Advancing Regional Equity

Alleviating municipal resistance to housing would also further Governor Murphy’s goal of making New Jersey a more equitable state. New Jersey Future recently compared residential segregation by race (as measured by the percent of racial minorities who live in neighborhoods that are dominated by that minority group) and by income among counties in New Jersey and in nearby states and found that concentrated poverty is more prevalent among counties with more fragmented public education systems, as in New Jersey, than in states where school districts are county-wide or at least tend to be shared by larger numbers of municipalities per district. And because segregation by income and segregation by race often go hand in hand, counties with less fragmented school systems also tend to have much lower degrees of segregation for Black and Hispanic residents. When individual towns don’t have to fret as much over school costs, they tend to become less resistant to housing, which in turn tends to increase the racial and financial diversity of the people who are able to live there.

Will school district consolidation save New Jersey taxpayers money? There is a strong case to be made that it will. But equally importantly, it might lead to better land-use decisions that provide a broader array of housing options to a broader range of people. New Jersey not only has the highest property taxes in the nation, it is also one of the most residentially segregated states. Regionalizing school districts has the potential to address both of these pressing issues.

Can the Reduction in Travel Prompted by COVID-19 Be Sustained?

March 15th, 2021 by Tim Evans

The Atlantic’s environmentally-themed “Weekly Planet” newsletter made an important observation at the beginning of 2021 about one salutary side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on energy use: “Experts expected that emissions would decline—the pandemic brought the world to a standstill for weeks and then months—but it wasn’t clear just how much they would fall. Turns out: pretty far. In 2020, American greenhouse-gas pollution fell 10.3 percent, a staggering decline and the largest year-over-year drop since World War II.”

Further: “Last year, U.S. emissions fell to about 21 percent below their 2005 level and—for the first time this century—below their 1990 level.”

A global pandemic is no one’s idea of a good way to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Emissions decreased because the entire economy slowed down, causing financial hardship to untold numbers of households and businesses. Stay-at-home orders and restrictions on indoor gatherings meant that many people in public-facing businesses couldn’t work, and many others curtailed shopping and leisure trips that ordinarily inject money into the economy—and that are ordinarily enjoyable activities for people. Giving up these activities is neither practical nor desirable as a long-term outcome.

But what if some of the reduction in emissions doesn’t have to be temporary? The article notes that the drop in CO2 emissions did not come from the energy sector—people still used the same amount of heat and electricity, they just used it at home rather than at the office. Instead, the reduction came from the transportation sector as people scaled back their travel.

Travel for shopping and recreational purposes will inevitably come back when medical professionals give the all-clear to return to pre-pandemic behavior. In fact, INRIX, one of the transportation data companies that documented the initial stark decline in driving  (New Jersey Future highlighted their findings back in April of last year) found in June that travel had already bounced back to above pre-COVID levels in much of the country, though mostly not in the bigger metropolitan areas where the virus was still most prevalent at that point. (Some of this may also have been temporary, with people increasing their leisure travel above normal levels as the first wave of the pandemic subsided in the summer.)

Commuting to work, however, is a different story. Many employers are realizing they don’t really need to have all their employees in the office every day and are contemplating adopting more formal remote work options that will outlast the pandemic. One study, by KPMG, is optimistic that a permanent reduction in vehicle-miles traveled of as large as 10% is possible, based on both employees and employers’ desire to have staff continue to work from home on at least a part-time basis. This would represent a reduction of the transportation sector’s GHG emissions equivalent to electrifying 10% of the vehicle fleet (which would amount to 600,000 cars and trucks in New Jersey), practically overnight.

The larger lesson is that when people drive less, GHG emissions go down. There are many ways to help people drive less—working from home is one of them, but we can also reduce the need to travel by car by building things closer together, reducing the distances between people’s desired destinations. This results not only in some trips now being feasible to take on foot, it also reduces driving distances for the majority of trips that are still taken by car. If we want to help sustain the reductions in VMT that the pandemic has unexpectedly inspired, we should start thinking more about the downstream transportation effects of where we build things, and build so not every trip needs to be taken by car.

© New Jersey Future, 16 W. Lafayette St. • Trenton, NJ 08608 • Phone: 609-393-0008 • Fax: 609-360-8478

Are you receiving our email newsletter?

  • Latest news on land-use policy issues
  • Research and reports
  • Upcoming events
  • Monthly

Click to subscribe