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NJ Residents can Improve Flood Management, one Rain Garden at a Time

November 1st, 2021 by Andrew Tabas

Flooding is a critical issue at all scales. On individual properties, flooding can cause a range of problems, from the risk of pooled water freezing and becoming a slipping hazard to serious damage in basements and ground floors. At the regional level, low-lying areas are vulnerable to severe damage from stormwater that accumulates as it flows downhill. Last month, the remnants of Hurricane Ida reminded New Jersey residents of how impactful flooding can be. 

Water engineers tell us that individual community members can work together to solve this problem by building rain gardens. Rain gardens, a type of green infrastructure, are designed to soak up water during storms. On properties with rain gardens, this means less pooled water and more groundwater recharge. The more properties adopt this practice, the more pressure is relieved from the area’s municipal separate storm sewer system or combined sewer system, helping to reduce the extent of flooding downstream. 

I decided to build my own rain garden to apply what I have learned through my work on New Jersey Future’s Mainstreaming Green Infrastructure program. The process gave me a better understanding of green infrastructure and how it can bring both stormwater management and aesthetic benefits. 

Follow these steps to build a rain garden in your backyard, school, religious institution, municipal building, or other space! 

  1. Plan the rain garden. Start by identifying where you see stormwater collect during storms. Is there a downward-sloping driveway? Does rainwater collect in roof gutters? Use this information to choose the perfect location for the rain garden. 
  2. Make a design for your rain garden. The more stormwater the rain garden needs to treat, the larger it needs to be. Rutgers University’s Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey is a great resource for designing your rain garden. 
  3. Conduct a soil infiltration test to see how well water will drain from the proposed site. Chapter 2 of Rutgers University’s Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey has instructions for how to conduct the soil infiltration test. 
  4. Choose your plants. These should be native plants that can handle large volumes of water. 
  5. Implement your design. Remove grass and soil to the required depth. To make sure that the bottom of the rain garden follows the slope of your design, use a tape measure to keep track of the height at various places in the rain garden.

    Digging and measuring the depth of the rain garden.

  6. If the infiltration test indicated that the site drains slowly, add a layer of sandy soil to the site. This will increase the infiltration rate (the speed at which water soaks into the ground). 
  7. Add plants, leaving space between plants so that they can grow over time.
  8. Add a layer of mulch. The top of the mulch should still be below ground level on the surrounding lawn. See Chapter 3 of Rutgers University’s Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey for additional installation guidance. 
  9. Sustain your creation. Watering and weeding wil help your plants thrive.
  10. Conduct annual maintenance, including pruning and mulching. Chapter 4 of Rutgers University’s Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey has additional instructions on how to sustain a healthy rain garden.

Maintenance is critical to ensure that green infrastructure is effective. Watering the rain garden shortly after installation will help the plants establish themselves.


Building a rain garden taught me several valuable lessons about green infrastructure. First, leave plenty of time for digging and use hand protection. Removing the required amount of soil took several days of digging with shovels and pickaxes. Second, ask an expert to weigh in on your design. Chris Obropta and Liz Pyshnik at Rutgers University provided valuable insight during the design process. Third, use a tarp to keep stormwater from filling the rain garden during construction. Otherwise, the space will fill up like a bathtub and it will be difficult to continue construction. Fourth, choose native plants that can cope with both flooding and drought. Irises, New England asters, decorative grasses, and arrow arum fulfilled these goals for my rain garden in Pittsburgh, PA.

 

Before the rain garden was constructed (left), water would pool in the driveway. After construction (right), the water has a place to go during storms. The rain garden is typically dry within 24 hours of storms.


While rain gardens look great and prevent flooding, they can also save money! The Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, passed in 2019, permits NJ localities to create
stormwater utilities. Part of the design of a stormwater utility is that properties that construct green infrastructure become eligible for a discount. The rain garden that I built was in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh with a stormwater fee of $8/month. After the township inspected the rain garden, the monthly fee was reduced to $5.60/month, a savings of 30%. To learn more about strategies to incentivize green infrastructure, read this memo by the Jersey Water Works Green Infrastructure Committee. 

To get started building rain gardens in your town: 

  1. Build a rain garden in your backyard, school, religious institution, municipal building, or other space!
  2. Sign up for the Green Infrastructure Champions Program to learn new advocacy strategies. 
  3. Encourage your municipal leaders to update your town’s Stormwater Ordinance to require green infrastructure on development projects. 
  4. Visit the New Jersey Green Infrastructure Municipal Toolkit to learn more.

The completed rain garden.

 

You, too, can bring flood prevention, stormwater runoff quality treatment, and aesthetic improvements to your property by building a rain garden.  Special thanks to Gary Tabas, Debra Tabas, Dorothy Heinrich, Liz Pyshnik, and Chris Obropta for their help with this project.

New Jersey Future Welcomes Three New Trustees

October 13th, 2021 by Bailey Lawrence

New Jersey Future’s new trustees Tenisha Malcolm-Wint, Kendra Morris, and Maddy Urbish.

New Jersey Future’s Board of Trustees welcomed three new members:

Tenisha N. Malcolm, director of Cities Programs for The Nature Conservancy, develops strategies that foster nature-based solutions to address community issues statewide. Tenisha has over 10 years of experience in the non-profit sector developing community programs that bridge gaps in public health, public policy, and youth leadership. Her devotion to her personal mission of centering inclusivity and equity spreads beyond her local community, and her impact reaches service groups throughout national and international regions. “I am excited about the direction New Jersey Future is moving in—with a greater focus on equity and working to ensure that the voices of communities that have been unheard are now amplified. I hope to serve as a liaison between New Jersey Future and communities that have not often been brought to the table.”

Kendra F. Morris, director of business development for SUEZ North America, has 15 years of experience developing sustainable public infrastructure. Ms. Morris partners with municipal leaders to bring affordable and smart water solutions to communities and oversees new digital technology deployment, as well as commercial development activities for new water and wastewater contracts. She co-chairs the Jersey Water Works Water Workforce Subcommittee, where she collaborates with committee members to attract youth to the water industry through outreach programs and college partnerships. “My passion is to promote infrastructure investment that leads to sustainable, resilient communities. I am honored to join the leaders on the New Jersey Future Board and advance smart policy and development for the people of New Jersey.”

Maddy Urbish, Ørsted head of government affairs and policy for New Jersey, is responsible for working closely with New Jersey government and non-governmental agencies to build the wind industry in the Tri-State and Mid-Atlantic regions. Prior to joining Ørsted in March 2021, Maddy worked as a senior associate with River Crossing Strategy Group, where she represented clients in the energy sector. In 2018, Maddy served as policy advisor to Governor Phil Murphy, focusing on energy, the environment, and agriculture. “I’m incredibly excited to be working with New Jersey Future on its effort to put forward policy and practice recommendations that will meaningfully improve the lives of all New Jerseyans. It’s a thrill to be joining such an impressive board and talented group of staff and volunteers at New Jersey Future, and I greatly look forward to working with the whole team!”

 

Electric Yard Goats and Environmental Justice

October 13th, 2021 by Tim Evans

Electric yard goats. Photo credit:

“Electric Yard Goats” may sound like the name of a band (or a baseball team), but they actually represent an important step in New Jersey’s effort to adopt electric vehicles as a means of reducing the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, they can help steer the air-quality and health benefits of vehicle electrification toward communities that have historically suffered the most from pollution generated by gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles and by the state’s many polluting land uses. (The transportation sector is responsible for 41% of New Jersey’s total greenhouse gas emissions as of 2019, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory.)

What is a yard goat, exactly?

Generally, a yard goat is a drivable vehicle designed to move individual freight-hauling containers (truck trailers or rail freight cars) from place to place within the confines of a single property, like a factory, warehouse, or rail intermodal terminal. The vehicles are not powerful enough to haul freight over the highway or rail networks. Rather, they are designed strictly for on-site movement, from one part of the business’s “yard” to another.

In the railroad world, “yard goat” typically refers to a locomotive that operates on a property—not necessarily owned by a railroad—that moves rail cars internally (e.g., a warehouse that needs to move individual cars between loading docks and storage sidings, or a steel mill that uses its own rail cars to move raw materials and intermediate products from one part of the facility to another). 

In the trucking world, a yard goat—sometimes called a yard tractor or terminal tractor—is a small truck cab that is used to shuffle around trailers. Ports are major users of yard goats, which pull truck trailer chassis around the property in the process of transferring containers from one mode to another as they arrive from or depart onto the highway or rail network.

Electrifying the busiest port on the East Coast

This is where New Jersey’s new electric yard goats come in. A few months ago, 10 electric yard tractors made their debut at the Red Hook Container Terminal in Port Newark, kicking off a longer-term project to electrify all of the port’s diesel-powered vehicles. This is a significant undertaking, given the port’s environmental footprint and its outsized importance to the state’s economy.

The Port of New York and New Jersey is the second-busiest port in the country and the busiest on the East Coast. Thanks in no small part to the port, the goods movement industry is a pillar of New Jersey’s economy—employing roughly one out of every eight employed New Jersey residents—and is poised to keep growing. 

Thousands of shipping containers pass through the port every day, requiring an army of trucks and trains to move them into, out of, and within the port’s various facilities. The port also uses all kinds of on-site cranes to transfer containers from one vehicle to another. All of these machines that keep the containers moving emit a steady stream of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the air. The CO2 emissions are a more widespread problem, contributing to the greenhouse effect that threatens the whole planet. But the more traditional pollutants primarily impact the port’s host towns and their neighbors, many of which are home to large populations of lower-income households and communities of color that have historically been saddled with noxious land uses, like factories and power plants.

Cleaning up past injustices

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. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has created and now maintains a list of such overburdened communities and is charged with ensuring that state agency actions do not result in the siting of additional noxious land uses in these neighborhoods.

Just as importantly, environmental justice calls for prioritizing overburdened communities when focusing on cleaning up existing sources of pollution. The administration has so far demonstrated a commitment to doing so, as indicated, for example, by the strategies outlined in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) Strategic Funding Plan and the creation of the RGGI Climate Investments Dashboard to track progress in environmental justice communities.

The administration’s blueprint for cutting back the state’s carbon footprint, the Global Warming Response Act 80×50 Report, has placed a strong emphasis on vehicle electrification. New Jersey Future and other groups have pointed out that the state is unlikely to meet its greenhouse-gas reduction goals through vehicle electrification alone, and that we should also be focusing on strategies that reduce people’s need to drive in the first place. But to the extent that vehicle electrification is front and center in the State’s climate strategy, we have argued that the State should prioritize electrifying larger and dirtier vehicles (e.g., transit buses, trucks, and port equipment) in and around neighborhoods that currently suffer from the worst air quality, rather than focusing on building electric vehicle charging stations in upscale suburbs.

The new electric yard goats work toward that goal. The port’s largest facilities are on the New Jersey side of the river in Newark, Elizabeth, and Bayonne. All three of these cities contain many neighborhoods that have historically been on the receiving end of the state’s polluting land uses (all 204 block groups in the city of Newark qualify as overburdened communities, as do 80 of the 82 block groups in Elizabeth and 47 of 52 in Bayonne). The electrification of the port’s many on-site diesel-powered vehicles would thus directly benefit many environmental justice communities via a reduction in airborne pollutants that cause asthma and exacerbate other health problems. Deploying the first round of electric port vehicles represents a small but significant step in the direction of ensuring that the State’s efforts to reduce its future carbon footprint (and clean up other fossil-fuel emissions in the process) actually improve environmental conditions in the communities that have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden from the state’s industrial past.

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Growth of New Jersey’s Latinx Population

October 13th, 2021 by Bailey Lawrence

This summer, the Colombian flag was raised at City Hall in Jersey City. The city held flag raising ceremonies to celebrate the independence of several Latin American countries.

This summer, the Colombian flag was raised at City Hall in Jersey City. The city held flag raising ceremonies to celebrate the independence of several Latin American countries. Photo credit: Bailey Lawrence

Some of my favorite stories are the ones my grandparents tell me about their journey from Bolivia to the U.S.—about finding their first jobs, struggling to “fit in,” and raising a family of six in a North Jersey suburb. Stories about finding a sense of community in an unfamiliar place.

My grandfather often reminds me that he would not be where he is today if not for other South American immigrants—as well as New Jersey and Pennsylvania natives—who helped him build a home, learn English, and ultimately attend Rutgers University (the first in a long line of Rutgers alumni). 

Neighbors and relationships like these form the social and economic foundations of an increasing number of communities across the country. Indeed, following the recent release of 2020 United States Census Bureau data, both national policy organizations and popular media outlets highlighted the increasing diversity of the U.S. population (as well as the diminishing size of the country’s white population). According to a New Jersey Future article published in September, diversity in the Garden State is similarly growing. New Jersey’s overall diversity index—the probability that two randomly selected individuals will be members of different racial groups—increased from 59.3% in 2010 to 65.7% in 2020.

Latinx population growth has significantly contributed to such burgeoning diversity, both nationally and statewide. In 2020, “people of Hispanic origin” constituted the second largest racial or ethnic group in the U.S., and one of the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the country. Only Asian Americans grew at a faster rate between 2010 and 2020 (35.6% vs. 23%), according to The Brookings Institution. 

During the same decade, New Jersey’s Hispanic population grew by nearly half a million people (447,431), which equates to a growth rate of 28.8% between 2010 and 2020 (compared to the state’s overall population growth rate of 5.7%).

The Hispanic population also increased in all 21 New Jersey counties. While Hudson County maintained its plurality-Hispanic status, Passaic County shifted from plurality non-Hispanic white to plurality-Hispanic.

At the municipal level, the Hispanic population increased in all but 32 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities. Among these municipalities, 23 contain an outright Hispanic majority, including seven whose Hispanic populations constitute 70% or more of their overall populations—Perth Amboy (83.2% Hispanic), Union City (82.4%), Dover (77.0%), West New York (75.8%), Victory Gardens (74.9%), Passaic (73.1%), and North Bergen (70.9%).

Additionally, 39 New Jersey municipalities are now plurality-Hispanic, compared to 25 municipalities in 2010. Among these municipalities, 15 attained plurality-Hispanic status in 2020, including Trenton, the state capital and home of New Jersey Future.

While we should certainly celebrate the growth of New Jersey’s Latinx population, the state’s increasing diversity should not invite complacency. Diversity alone is less valuable in a society in which Black and brown people still lack access to resources and opportunities—a society in which we still fail to equitably distribute power and ensure ownership in communities of color. This Hispanic Heritage Month—and every month—we must recognize that diversity is merely the starting point.

School district regionalization is an educational quality issue—and a cost-saving issue, and a land-use issue, and a segregation issue

October 13th, 2021 by Tim Evans

Photo Credit: Dan Dennis-UnSplash

New Jersey’s system for delivering public education is particularly fragmented—it averages 28 school districts per county,1 the most of any state, and averages just under 15,000 residents per district, well below the national average of 23,344. It has more school districts than it has municipalities. This fractionalized landscape contributes to and exacerbates several of the state’s most intractable problems in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Last month, the Corporation for NJ Local Media hosted a webinar entitled “School Regionalization, and What It Could Mean for Your Community,” at which panelists discussed a bill (S3488) sponsored by Senate President Sweeney and others that aims to consolidate school districts that are 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). Such consolidations have the potential to affect as many as 275 school districts. The bill has passed both chambers of the legislature and awaits the governor’s signature.

The panelists focused primarily on the inconsistencies and inefficiencies that are introduced into the quality and costs of education by having so many small districts. When children come to a regional high school from multiple elementary schools that are each operated by their own individual districts, the lack of a uniform curriculum across the feeder elementary schools can create challenges for teachers in the high school. Feeder schools can also vary widely in terms of their ability to hire teachers with specialties in certain subjects, since the small size of the districts introduces greater variability into the size and composition of the tax bases from which the districts must raise revenues.

Merging school districts is most often promoted as a cost-saving measure, streamlining top-heavy administrative structures and creating economies of scale in the construction of school buildings, the hiring of teachers, the utilization of classroom space, and the transportation of students. The state’s school costs are indeed conspicuously high. New Jersey spends more per capita on public elementary and secondary education than all other states besides New York and Vermont—about $3,200 per capita as of the 2019 Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances. This is 50% higher than the national average of $2,186 per capita.

Because New Jersey is so dependent on property taxes for raising revenue, and because school taxes represent the lion’s share of the overall property tax bill, the state’s high spending on education translates into the nation’s highest property tax bills—a median tax bill of $8,432,2 more than triple the nationwide median of $2,578, and substantially outpacing second-place Connecticut at $6,004. Consolidating school districts could help reduce duplicative expenditures and bring property tax increases under control.

But as New Jersey Future has written previously, school district consolidation is more than just a cost-saving measure; it could also help tame the state’s high housing costs and the resulting out-migration of people to less expensive states. Because New Jersey’s property tax bills are already so high, municipal leaders try to discourage residential development that might attract households with school-age children into town, necessitating increased school spending and subsequent property tax hikes. This widespread resistance contributes to a statewide undersupply of housing, putting upward pressure on home prices and chasing lower-earning households, including many young adults, out of the state in search of cheaper housing elsewhere.

The small size of the state’s districts may also contribute to New Jersey’s status as one of the most segregated states in the country—both by income and by race—despite being one of the most diverse states as a whole. In seeking to deter residential development through exclusionary zoning, many municipalities render themselves unaffordable to all but upper-income households, which reinforces racial segregation. Last year, New Jersey Future compared New Jersey to nearby states where public education is organized differently and found that concentrated poverty is more prevalent in counties with more fragmented public education systems than in states where school districts are county-wide or shared by larger numbers of municipalities. And, because segregation by income and segregation by race often coincide, counties with less fragmented school systems also tend to have much lower degrees of segregation for Black and Hispanic residents.

If New Jersey wishes to promote social equity by dismantling the processes that perpetuate residential segregation, mitigating its exclusionary land use incentives by organizing and funding public education at a higher level of government may be a good place to start.

There are multiple reasons to support the Sweeney school district consolidation bill. By itself, it will not solve New Jersey’s property tax, housing costs, or segregation issues, but it would be an important step in the right direction on all of these fronts.


12017 Census of Governments

2 2019 American Community Survey, one-year estimates

Lead Exposure: Learning From East Trenton Residents

September 13th, 2021 by Gary Brune

On August 26, 2021 a virtual Listen and Learn session on the dangers of exposure to lead in paint, water, and soil was attended by nearly 30 East Trenton residents, as well as Mayor Reed Gusciora. The question and answer exchange highlighted new areas of concern and reinforced that there is work to be done to improve communication, notify residents of lead hazards, and expand financial assistance for remediation of known lead sources.

Shereyl Snider, a community organizer with the East Trenton Collaborative, successfully hosted and promoted the 1.5-hour session. The presenters included Elyse Pivnick, Isles, Inc. Senior Director of Environmental Health; Anthony Diaz, New Jersey Future Community Outreach Coordinator; and Gary Brune, New Jersey Future Senior Policy Manager. While Pivnick addressed the issue of exposure to lead in paint and soil, Diaz and Brune discussed lead in drinking water as well as safety tips to maximize protection. 

Most residents were surprised to learn that Trenton has the second highest percentage of children up to six years old with elevated blood lead levels (5.9%, trailing only East Orange). Many expressed interest in the free home assessments offered by Isles, Inc. and the availability of grants for low-income homeowners to remediate paint hazards. 

What was not surprising was the frequently cited concern about receiving accurate, timely information. Many residents echoed a familiar refrain: public understanding of the lead threat is limited. This was perhaps best captured by Shadura Lee, a teacher and community member, who described the challenges of helping a lead-affected child in her class.

Strong support was expressed for empowering trusted community organizations to convey the impact of lead exposure by engaging in an array of in-person community outreach tactics, including door-to-door canvassing, to reach residents who do not own a computer or cell phone. In addition to raising general awareness, such tactics may be the best way to resolve long-standing misconceptions (e.g., lead can enter the body through bathing and showering, lead can be removed by boiling water, etc.) or clarify confusing guidance (e.g., how long to flush water from a dormant faucet).

Both Isles, Inc. and New Jersey Future plan to incorporate this feedback into their respective work to shape state laws and policies. This includes the Jersey Water Works Lead in Drinking Water Task Force, which issued a report with statewide recommendations in 2019 and continues to press for solutions to this vexing problem. Lead-Free New Jersey, launched recently by New Jersey Future and numerous policy and community partners, seeks to mitigate the prevalence and impact of lead contamination through proactive, equitable state and local policies and a holistic lead approach to remediation. For more information, see www.leadfreenj.org

New Jersey Municipalities Share Green Infrastructure Planning Progress

September 13th, 2021 by Donovan Gayles

Why are towns across New Jersey creating plans for Green Infrastructure?
Rain garden with curb bump-out installed as part of Highland Park streetscape improvements.

Rain garden in Hoboken, NJ. Source: Green Streets Case Studies.

Have you ever wondered why plots of plants, shrubs, and trees exist in empty parking lots or on the sides of buildings? The issue of flooding and impaired water quality from stormwater—which carries pollutants that negatively affect lakes, rivers, and streams—persists across the state. Managing stormwater will be increasingly difficult due to increased rainfall induced by climate change. Green Infrastructure (GI), however, can help respond to the problem of stormwater runoff. Because stormwater poses a problem in multiple municipalities across the state, New Jersey adopted new stormwater rules that require municipalities to manage stormwater using GI. GI can build upon existing “gray” infrastructure (e.g., pipes) to cultivate a greener state. Utilizing this method will address flooding concerns, while enabling towns to take collective steps toward making communities more sustainable and resilient. Jersey WaterCheck compiles data about GI through several metrics to build transparency in stormwater management across the state.

Why share metrics related to green infrastructure? 

Sharing metrics on GI is crucial, because it allows municipalities and communities to get a glimpse of where towns are in their respective green infrastructure implementation. It is no secret that GI has various environmental and social benefits, and each town should be taking steps to use it to improve its stormwater management. If the metrics are posted online and publicly accessible, this data can be used as a benchmark for assessing towns’ progress as well as how much assistance they might need as they use GI to reduce flood risk, improve water quality, and make streets more beautiful.

Findings

The new stormwater rules that went into effect on March 2, 2021 require NJ municipalities to update their Stormwater Control Ordinances (SCOs) to require GI in new major development projects. We examined which municipalities had updated their SCOs as required and which had gone above and beyond the NJDEP’s minimum requirements. We found that several towns, including Princeton, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, have gone above and beyond in their SCOs. These are just a few of the many towns that have exceeded the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (NJDEP’s) standards in ways such as strengthening the definition of major development and requiring GI for redevelopment projects. Out of the 43 towns surveyed and researched, 28 towns have updated their SCO and 24 have posted these updates on their respective websites. This data can be treated as a benchmark to determine how towns are doing and where they can enhance their planning and implementation of green infrastructure projects. 

Are you a municipal representative who has not filled out the survey?
Click here to add your town’s information.

Background

Green infrastructure is a stormwater management strategy that enables stormwater and melting snow to soak into soil where they fall or to be captured for a beneficial reuse, such as irrigation or flushing toilets. It is a way to reuse natural water for environmental benefits. Examples include green roofs, cisterns, and rain gardens. GI can be used to confront the issue of runoff water, which leads to pollution and flooding. 

GI is important because it supports the natural environments, public health, and economic development of towns and municipalities. Jersey WaterCheck seeks to increase the transparency of New Jersey’s water infrastructure, including by measuring GI progress. 

Process

Jersey WaterCheck uses various metrics to gauge and measure how municipalities are using GI to bring economic, environmental, and social benefits to their communities. Through collaborative efforts, members of New Jersey Future and Jersey WaterCheck have developed several metrics for which data is gathered through municipal surveys. The metrics have been organized in the following categories: 

  • Stormwater Control Ordinance content, including questions that ask about: 
    • GI for new major development
    • GI for redevelopment
  • Stormwater Control Ordinance availability, including questions that ask about: 
    • Whether municipalities have posted GI information on their website
  • Current GI use, including questions that ask about:
    • Acres of land on which the municipality currently uses GI for stormwater management
    • Which towns have shared their MS4 outfall maps with the NJDEP 
  • Future GI use, including questions that ask about:
    • Acres of land the municipality plans to use GI on for stormwater management
    • Whether the municipal master plan includes GI goals
Green streets are pedestrian-friendly alternatives to traditional streets. See the toolkit for a side-by-side comparison of green and traditional streets. Graphic designed by E&LP for NJF.

Example of a green street from the Green Infrastructure Municipal Toolkit

 

After meeting with various stakeholders, we considered these metrics to be the most important and straightforward to ask towns and municipalities about in reference to GI. After finalizing the list of metrics, we selected 43 towns to survey. We determined these towns based on the following criteria to ensure a diverse sample:

  • Coastal, highlands, and pinelands
  • Combined and separate sewer system
  • Large and small towns
  • Towns that do and do not include an overburdened community
  • Towns at varying stages of GI implementation

Once the towns were selected and the metrics were finalized, we began the process of gathering information through research and interviews. We connected with these towns via email and telephone to complete the survey.

Overall, it is encouraging to see that many towns have updated their SCOs and that several have chosen to go above and beyond the minimum standard set by the NJDEP. Towns that have not yet updated their SCOs can use the metrics posted on Jersey WaterCheck to learn which towns’ ordinances may serve as good examples. As we take steps towards a greener New Jersey, using metrics to track progress can help keep towns on the road to green infrastructure implementation. 

Census 2020: New Jersey’s Older and Increasingly Diverse Centers Are Now Leading The State’s Population Growth

September 13th, 2021 by Tim Evans

Jersey City tree lined city street

The demographic story of the 2010s in New Jersey was the return of population growth to the state’s walkable, mixed-use centers—cities, towns, and older suburbs with traditional downtowns. Driven in particular by the Millennial generation’s desire for live-work-shop-play environments in which a car is not necessarily needed for every trip, many of the state’s older centers experienced their biggest population increases since before the 1950s. 

Newark, the state’s largest city, grew more than twice as fast as the rest of the state this decade, growing by 12.4% between 2010 and 2020 compared to 5.7% for the state as a whole. This is the first time in many decades that Newark has outpaced the statewide growth rate, and 2020 also marks the first time since 1985 that New Jersey has had a city with a population of more than 300,000. Newark’s population dipped below 300,000 in 1986 and continued to decline to a low of 262,862 in 1998 before reversing its slide.

Jersey City, the state’s second-largest city, has been perhaps the most visible star in New Jersey’s urban revival. Its resurgence actually predates the national trend by several decades (Jersey City’s population decreased in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but began growing again in the 80s). It grew slowly at first, lagging behind the statewide rate until 2010, but between 2010 and 2020 it grew at more than three times the statewide growth rate (18.1% vs. 5.7%). Like Newark, Jersey City once had more than 300,000 residents, but dropped below that mark in 1950, eventually falling to a low of 220,857 in 1979. But having added almost 45,000 people in the 2010s, its population now stands at 292,449 and is poised to once again surpass 300,000 in the coming decade if its 2020s growth looks anything like its 2010s growth.

The growth of traditional centers is not limited to the state’s biggest cities, however. The 124 New Jersey municipalities that best embody the concept of walkable urbanism and score high on all three New Jersey Future smart growth metrics—high activity densities (people + jobs per square mile), mixed-use downtowns, and well-connected, walkable street grids—together grew by more than 1.5 times the statewide growth rate, accounting for more than half (57.5%) of the statewide population increase in the 2010s, compared to only 13.6% of total growth in the 2000s. Most of these cities, smaller towns, and walkable, first-generation suburbs experienced their peak growth many decades ago. In fact, many of them actually lost population at some point since the 50s.

In contrast, the 158 municipalities with the most car-dependent development patterns—characterized by low densities, single-use subdivisions, and branching street networks that require circuitous car trips—grew by only half the statewide rate in the 2010s (2.8% vs. 5.7% statewide). This is a dramatic change from previous decades; this same group of municipalities grew by 7.1% between 2000 and 2010 and accounted for more than one-third (35.9%) of statewide population growth that decade after comprising 37.8% of the statewide increase in the 90s and 63.8% in the 80s. Younger generations’ preference for in-town living has substantially curbed demand for new subdivisions at the exurban fringe.

The state’s older centers also significantly contribute to New Jersey’s status as one of the most racially diverse states in the country. Much of the media coverage of the release of 2020 Census county and municipal populations focused on increasing diversity, both at the state and local levels. In New Jersey, it’s in the compact, walkable centers where the state’s diversity is most evident. Using a concept called the diversity index, which the Census Bureau uses to show “the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different race and ethnic groups”1 (the higher the score, the more diverse the community), New Jersey’s overall diversity index was 65.7% in 2020, up from 59.3% in 2010. Of the state’s 565 municipalities, 215 have a diversity index greater than 50%, and of these 215, 93 are among the 124 municipalities referenced above that score well on all three New Jersey Future smart growth metrics. Thus, among the municipalities with the most center-like development patterns, 75% (93 out of 124) have a diversity index of 50% or more. In contrast, among the 158 most sprawling, car-dependent municipalities that do not score well on any of the three metrics, only 22.8% (36 out of 158) exceed 50% on the diversity index. (The other two groups of municipalities—those scoring well on either one or two of the metrics—follow the same pattern, in which a greater number of high scores on smart growth metrics is associated with a higher likelihood of having a diversity index of 50% or more.) 

New growth in older centers is happening, in part, thanks to the rise of redevelopment—the reuse of land that had previously been developed for some other purpose—as New Jersey’s default development pattern. The 270 New Jersey municipalities that were at least 90% built-out as of 2007 together accounted for nearly two-thirds (65.1%) of the state’s population increase in the 2010s, after having contributed just 12.2% of the statewide increase in the 2000s. That the state’s population growth is now dominated by redevelopment areas represents a remarkable shift compared to the several preceding decades, which were characterized by low-density growth on the suburban fringe. The trend toward redevelopment illustrates that “built-out” does not mean “full,” and that there are plenty of opportunities to absorb new residents in the state’s cities, towns, and older suburbs.

Creating new opportunities for growth in these older centers is key to attracting and retaining members of younger generations who are looking for an in-town lifestyle. New Jersey should focus on reforming local zoning to allow more of the kinds of housing younger households are looking for (e.g., townhouses, duplexes, small apartment buildings, apartments above stores, smaller single-family homes on small lots) in the kinds of places they want to live. Encouraging growth in already-developed areas has the added benefit of using our transportation and energy infrastructure more efficiently and avoiding the building of new sprawling infrastructure and then having to maintain it. The move to redevelopment also takes pressure off the state’s remaining open lands, helping to preserve the state’s overall quality of life by allowing those lands to continue being used for agriculture, recreation, and wildlife habitats.


1The diversity index is dependent on the number of different mutually-exclusive race categories that are used in the analysis. The Census Bureau uses eight categories in its analysis. New Jersey Future’s analysis condenses these to five—non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, non-Hispanic Asian, and other—by grouping four of the Census Bureau’s categories into the “other” group, because their numbers are individually very small in New Jersey. Using five categories, the index has a maximum value of 0.8, or 80%.

Lead in Drinking Water in Public Schools: State Assistance Accelerates the Solution in New Jersey

September 13th, 2021 by Gary Brune

Photo credit: Canva

When New Jersey’s public schools were last tested for lead in drinking water in 2016, the extent of potential exposure was pervasive. Based on research conducted by the Trenton Bureau of the USA TODAY Network in 2019, approximately 480 school buildings across a third of the state’s school districts recorded lead levels that exceeded 15 parts per billion, the action level set by the federal government. Given the severity of the problem and the significant cost of remediation, it was clear that state assistance was necessary to protect students and teachers.

On July 1, 2021 Governor Murphy signed legislation (A-5887) that appropriated $6.6 million in state grants for water infrastructure improvements in public schools. This represents the first issuance of grants authorized under the Securing Our Children’s Future program administered by the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE). A total of $100 million in state bonds was approved for this initiative by voters in November 2018. The subsequent regulations promulgated by the NJDOE identified two categories of eligible projects: improvements to drinking water outlets and remediation of major segments of a school’s water distribution system (e.g., replacement of lead service lines or wells).

The approved grants include a $4.1 million appropriation for Jersey City, as well as Shore Regional’s (Monmouth County) plan to use part of its $70,721 grant to install an automated flushing system, a new, low-cost technology that has been successfully implemented elsewhere to keep lead from leaching from pipes into water.

Anecdotally, it appears that the pandemic limited the number of applications submitted to the NJDOE as school districts focused on securing federal aid to ensure ongoing operations. According to the Department, the next round of grants (funded by approximately $93 million in remaining funds) will be issued after the districts perform their cyclical testing of lead in drinking water, which must be completed by the end of June 2022. (This link provides an overview of the NJDOE’s testing-related regulations under N.J.A.C. 6A:26-12.4.) The NJDOE’s approach will help ensure that the next round of grant applications is based on the latest testing results.

The NJDOE issued a broadcast on July 2, 2021 notifying those districts whose grants were approved by the Legislature. The full list of substantially approved grants can be accessed on the Department’s School Facilities webpage.

New Jersey Needs More “Missing Middle” Housing

July 19th, 2021 by Tim Evans

Aerial photo of Trenton, NJ.

  • New Jersey’s housing costs are among the highest in the country. The state ranks seventh in median home value and fourth in median rent.
  • The state is losing younger households to other states, and evidence points to high housing costs as one of the reasons.
  • To create more of the kinds of homes that younger households are looking for—in the neighborhoods they want to live in—New Jersey should consider revising the zoning and parking requirements that determine what kind of housing gets built and where.

A recent Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, in collaboration with the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, found that 90% of New Jerseyans are worried about the cost of housing in the state, with 55% considering it a “very serious” problem and another 35% saying it is “somewhat serious.” And 80% feel the same way about finding an affordable place to rent (49% “very serious” and 32% “somewhat serious”).

They are not wrong to worry—New Jersey is an expensive state. As of the 2019 one-year American Community Survey1, New Jersey’s median gross rent of $1,376 is the fourth-highest in the nation after Hawaii, California, and Maryland. And on median home value (self-reported), it ranks seventh after Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

To a certain extent, this is a function of New Jersey’s status as a high-income state—our median household income of $85,751 is the third-highest in the country after Maryland and Massachusetts. It is broadly true that the states with the highest housing costs also tend to have the highest incomes (Hawaii, California, Washington, and Colorado all also appear in the top 10 for household income). Typically, the higher a household’s income, the more it is able to spend on housing.

Living with Parents

For younger New Jerseyans on the lower end of the income ladder, however, high home prices and rents can present a significant barrier to forming their own households and staying in New Jersey when they do move out on their own. New Jersey has the highest incidence among the 50 states of people ages 18 to 34 living with their parents (45.4%, or nearly half). Only Connecticut (41.7%) and Rhode Island (41.1%) also exceed 40%, with notoriously expensive California just behind at 39.5%. (The national rate is 34.0%.) When faced with an expensive housing market, many younger New Jerseyans choose to delay getting their own place.

Paying More Than You Can Afford

An extended post-graduation stay with parents is one way to save on rent or to save up to buy a house. But not everyone finds this option feasible or desirable. Some will just bite the bullet and spend more on housing than they can realistically afford. Indeed, New Jersey has the fourth-highest rate among the 50 states of households paying more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs (such households are considered “housing-cost burdened”), behind only California, Hawaii, and New York. The percentage is unsurprisingly higher among renters than homeowners, as is true elsewhere—nationally, 48.4% of renter households are cost-burdened, compared to only 21.3% of homeowner households. But New Jersey actually only ranks 12th-highest when looking exclusively at the rate of housing cost burden among renters—its rate of 49.0% is only slightly higher than the national rate.

Where New Jersey stands out is in its cost-burdened rate among households that own their homes, which, at 28.9%, is the third-highest rate in the country behind Hawaii and California. This is likely due—in part—to New Jersey’s notoriously high property taxes. New Jersey’s median real estate tax bill of $8,432 is the highest in the country by a wide margin and one-third higher than second-place Connecticut ($6,004). In New Jersey, homeownership is not necessarily a reliable hedge against rising housing costs, because of the potential to face rising property tax bills.

Moving Out of State

Given New Jersey’s high housing costs, some younger people seeking to form their own households simply choose to leave the state entirely. In 2017, New Jersey Future found that 22-to-34-year-olds (an age range then consisting entirely of members of the Millennial generation) were moving to compact, walkable towns (consistent with the national media narrative at the time), but that Millennials also appeared to be leaving the state in large numbers. A subsequent 2018 analysis confirmed that Millennials were indeed underrepresented in New Jersey’s population, compared to their share of the population nationwide, raising the question of where New Jersey’s “missing Millennials” had gone. Further research into the destinations of New Jersey’s out-migrating Millennials suggested that many of them were relocating to other parts of the country where they could find the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods they were looking for, but where they could actually afford to buy or rent a home.

Constraints on Supply and Induced Demand

What can New Jersey do to bring down the costs of housing so that young people can afford to live near where they grew up if they so desire? A seemingly obvious solution is to increase the supply of the kinds of housing younger households are looking for, in the kinds of places where they want to live. But this is easier said than done; housing markets are constrained both by a finite supply of land and by government regulation in the form of local zoning. Additionally, many markets in New Jersey have such high demand that increasing supply will not realistically reduce housing prices, and in some cases will actually induce further demand. Would-be suppliers (i.e., residential developers) may have a sense of what kind of housing the market wants, but they may not be able to build it fast enough or build it in the right places, because local zoning prevents them from doing so. And when they are able to build it, induced demand can simply push prices higher.

Building new homes in the right places is an important part of the solution. Today’s young adults don’t want the suburban tract home at the end of the cul-de-sac that characterized their parents’ generation. They want walkable neighborhoods and traditional downtowns where they don’t need to drive 3 miles every time they leave the house. And they want other housing options besides a single-family detached home on a big lot, like townhouses, duplexes, small apartment buildings, apartments above stores, and smaller single-family homes–options that were once common but are now sometimes referred to as the “missing middle” between single-family detached homes and large apartment complexes. Even older Millennials who may have lived in the “city” when they were younger but are now looking for a bit more space are not moving to the same kinds of “suburbs” as previous generations and are instead gravitating toward smaller centers

Removing Barriers and Building in Affordability

The good news is that New Jersey already contains many smaller cities, walkable suburban downtowns, and transit-adjacent neighborhoods that offer the live-work-shop-play balance that many younger households (and aspiring future households) are seeking. Oftentimes these places do not contain an adequate supply of smaller units that are relatively more affordable than their larger counterparts. The question is how to start producing more housing in these places of the sizes and types that prospective buyers and renters want. This generally means removing barriers to the production of these housing types so that suppliers are free to try to catch up with demand while simultaneously looking to build in more permanent affordability for lower income residents. Steps New Jersey can pursue (and which some other states, counties, and cities are already pursuing) include:

  • Accessory dwelling units: Allow the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) (e.g., in-law suites, above-garage apartments, etc.) on single-family lots as-of-right. Los Angeles County offers an example, having recently modified its ordinances to make the creation of ADUs much easier. AARP has developed a model ordinance for state and local governments that are interested in pursuing this option. ADUs would also help older residents remain in their communities as they age.
  • Zoning reform: Increase the production of “missing middle” housing types by curtailing municipalities’ ability to zone for nothing but single-family detached housing. Removing restrictions on other housing types would free up markets to expand housing options. The city of Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning citywide in 2018, and other cities are considering similar moves; the website Strong Towns provides a good recent review of where this movement is enjoying some success, including a few cities in California. Oregon even took the bold state-level step of passing a law in 2019 that requires all cities with populations of at least 25,000 to allow two-, three-, and four-unit structures, as well as townhouses, in any neighborhood previously zoned only for single-family detached homes. Oregon thus offers a model for state-level action that does not wait for individual cities and towns to loosen zoning on their own.
  • Reduce or eliminate parking minimums: One way to make room for more housing is to devote more space to homes and less to car storage. Parking takes up space—and costs money—that could otherwise be devoted to producing more housing units. Reducing parking requirements would likely reduce builders’ construction costs per unit, pulling prices downward. In 2017, Buffalo became the first city to eliminate minimum parking requirements for all new development citywide, which has led to more shared parking and fewer new parking spaces in the densest parts of the city and has allowed some new projects to proceed that might not have been financially viable under the old requirements. The smaller city of Fayetteville, Arkansas actually beat Buffalo to the punch by two years, although it eliminated parking requirements only for commercial development. A bill is working its way through the California legislature that would eliminate parking minimums for new projects located in neighborhoods served by transit. Berkeley has not waited for the state, doing away with parking minimums in almost all residential neighborhoods citywide. Existing surface parking lots also serve as a sort of urban land bank for built-out areas, offering opportunities for infill development and higher-density housing. In New Jersey, Metuchen built the Woodmont Metro at Metuchen Station project on a former commuter surface parking lot, creating new housing options in a town that had been dominated by single-family detached homes and improving its downtown walkability in the process.
  • Regionalizing school districts: New Jersey’s public-school landscape is particularly fragmented. It averages 28 school districts per county,2 the most of any state, and averages just under 15,000 residents per school district, well below the national average of 23,344. Such fragmentation results in duplicative costs for administration, buildings, and equipment and drives up the property taxes that fund public education, which in turn drives up overall housing costs. Moving toward more regional school districts would create economies of scale and would likely help bring costs and property taxes down. Increasing the geographic size of school districts would also mitigate competition for taxable property among districts and reduce local government resistance to residential development, clearing the path for developers to build more housing to meet demand.
  • Long-term affordability mechanisms: As neighborhoods become more desirable, prices will rise. To help ensure that our most desirable and opportunity-laden communities are available to people of all incomes and races, it is important for towns to proactively remove a percentage of housing from the investor marketplace and keep rents and sale prices affordable for the long-term. This can be accomplished through a number of mechanisms including inclusionary housing development with proper affordability targeting and controls; buying down market rate houses and apartment units and putting in place long-term deed restrictions; and developing long-term ownership structures like nonprofit owned housing complexes and community land trusts.

1This and all subsequent housing and income statistics are from the 2019 one-year American Community Survey unless otherwise indicated.

2Using data from the 2017 Census of Governments

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

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