New Jersey mayors, housing advocates clash on affordable housing solutions

Mayors and housing advocates testified in front of lawmakers on the shortage of affordable housing in New Jersey.

Mayors and housing advocates testified in front of lawmakers on the shortage of affordable housing in New Jersey.

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

New Jersey mayors want lawmakers to reinstate the Council on Affordable Housing, saying it would streamline the process for towns to add more affordable housing units.

Resurrecting the council, which went dormant under the Christie administration, would be preferable to the current system of using the courts to enforce towns’ affordable housing obligations, the mayors said Thursday during a three-hour hearing in front of the Assembly’s housing committee.

“We need to have an administrative agency and process that is engaged on the subject and can help oversee, monitor, and work with towns and other entities toward our united goal of producing and sustaining affordable housing in New Jersey,” said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora.

Housing advocates answered the mayors’ calls by saying more affordable housing units have been ordered by the courts than were ever produced when the Council on Affordable Housing was in existence.

James Williams, director of racial policy at Fair Share Housing Center, said reinstating the council would lead to dysfunction and bureaucracy and slow down the rate of affordable housing development the state has seen in recent years. While the council approved 70,000 units in 30 years, he said, the court system will lead to 50,000 units approved in 10 years.

“I know a lot of talk about how difficult and expensive this is, but it was far more expensive to see New Jerseyans homeless. It was far more expensive for New Jerseyans not to have the ability to find safe and affordable housing,” said Williams. “I think there’s an opportunity for the Legislature to introduce legislation that will find innovative and diverse ways to utilize our land and resources.”

Gusciora and Williams were among dozens of people who testified in front of the housing committee Thursday about whether the state should reconsider its system of requiring towns to build affordable housing.

In 1975, a state Supreme Court decision created the Mount Laurel doctrine, which ordered municipalities to create a “fair share” of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents. In 1985, the Legislature passed the Fair Housing Act, which created the Council on Affordable Housing and tasked it with determining guidelines for towns to calculate the number of units they’d need to build.

The council approved two rounds of housing plans until 1999 but then stopped adopting new quotas and approving new rules. In 2015, the state Supreme Court deemed the council non-functioning and turned the process over to the Superior Court. This system allows towns to challenge housing obligations and settle in court with organizations likethe nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center, with judges approving project plans.

Mayors argue the current process is costly and time-consuming.

Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Monmouth), a former mayor of Matawan, questioned why Fair Share Housing Center became the group that “comes up with the numbers” on required affordable housing units.

“Wouldn’t it be better if the state government sat down, looked at available land, looked at farmland, looked at open space, wetlands, and said, ‘This is our number and this is where they should be built,’ and avoid municipalities having to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to litigate?” he said.

Housing advocates countered that towns are driving up the cost of housing by embarking on litigation to argue they don’t have to build affordable housing units, and said the settlement process has been successful.

One advocate likened the Council on Affordable Housing to a “political football.”

Sofia Rosa of the Latino Action Network Foundation said the Mount Laurel doctrine is crucial to addressing residential segregation in New Jersey, especially at a time when Asian, Latino, and Black populations are steadily growing.

While New Jersey grew by 210,000 households between 2010 and 2020, the housing stock increased by just 95,000 homes, she said.

“Such a huge mismatch between the population growth and creating new homes has played a critical role in driving up rents and home prices … There needs to be an expansion of opportunities for Hispanic or Latino residents to rent and buy at more affordable prices,” she said.

Nearly a quarter of Latino residents use more than half of their income on rent, she said.

Michael Cerra, executive director of the League of Municipalities, suggested setting up a state housing bank — which would allow towns to skip out on building their own housing and instead deposit some money for another town to build affordable units.

He also said he wants to see the Legislature help secure more funding for the state’s affordable housing trust fund and give mayors more flexibility on how they can use it. Gusciora pointed to abandoned lots in Trenton he’d like to see utilized for housing.

“We don’t have a whole lot of idea what the money is used for. It’s there, it’s not very transparent. We don’t know how to access it,” said Cerra.

Mayors of the state’s cities advocated for incentivizing first-time homebuyers and rehabilitating abandoned and vacant properties, as well as increasing funding for transportation, education, and central business districts.

“In the context of any discussion surrounding the extent to which suburban communities are in compliance with constitutionally mandated affordable housing obligations, we must not omit the need to contend with decades of disinvestment in urban communities, from which we’re still recovering,” said Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp, vice president of the Urban Mayors Association.

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