The dearth of affordable homes in New Jersey is a statewide problem that is getting more and more challenging for cities, particularly those like Jersey City and Newark, where new residential developments are bringing in luxury housing too expensive for many current residents.
"There's not enough state investment to create homes that people can afford," said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, in concisely defining the problem during a discussion on the issue at the NJ Spotlight on Cities conference last Friday at NJPAC in Newark.
She noted one report that found a minimum wage worker, in order to afford the typical market-priced home in the state, would have to toil 157 hours a week.
"We really have a huge demand and no state investments to meet that demand," added Berger.
The Rev. Eric Dobson, staff outreach coordinator of the Fair Share Housing Center, said there is a "lack of political will" to invest in affordable housing and called the current situation a "crisis."
Berger attributed part of the problem to semantics. Saying the phrase "affordable housing" has a negative connotation, she called for the use of new terms to describe the issue.
"The frame of affordable housing really makes people think of something other than what most of us are talking about and what most people want," Berger said. "You say affordable housing to almost everybody ... People think high rise, they think drugs, they think crime, they think they don't want it in their neighborhoods. They have a visceral reaction. It's up to us as advocates for people who need homes to really fight to change the language."
She noted that change that occurred when advocates reframed the discussion around gay marriage to use the term marriage equality, saying the new phrasing led to a "demonstrable change in polling, in support, and then you saw a real change in policy."
Berger said it might be as simple as using the phrase "affordable homes" instead.
All of the panelists in Friday's discussion agreed that the public needs to lobby elected officials to get them to build more homes, as well as watch to make sure they use what little public money is available to them in their housing trust funds as they are supposed to.
Dobson said it's an issue all New Jerseyans should want to support, given that nearly half of all adults ages 18 to 34 in the state are living with their parents, mostly because they cannot afford to be on their own.
Renee Wolf Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, agreed that the need is widespread across all demographics.
"It's so acceptable for our municipalities to build housing for seniors and the disabled, but we really need to talk about everyone," she said.
The issue of affordable housing in New Jersey has a long and contentious history, dating back to state Supreme Court rulings in the 1970s and 1980s that municipalities cannot use zoning to try to keep out certain groups of people and have an obligation to provide their "fair share" of the homes affordable to those living in their region. The Fair Housing Act, signed in 1985, set rules for towns to follow and established the Council on Affordable Housing to oversee that process. While that worked for a while, COAH had no valid rules in place since 1999 and when its most recent attempt at drafting new rules deadlocked in 2014, the Supreme Court kicked the issue back to the state court system, where hearings and settlements have begun to occur.
While New Jersey's cities typically have the largest share of the state's poorest residents, they still have the need for more units that are affordable because some of the current housing stock is in poor condition and some of residents are paying far too much of their incomes toward housing, leaving very little for food and other necessities.
The problem gets exacerbated when cities like Jersey City and Newark, both in the midst of development booms, are adding thousands of what are termed "luxury" units that many current residents could not afford. Berger said Jersey City has an inclusionary zoning policy to encourage the construction of affordable units along with market-rate dwellings and Newark is considering such a policy.
"As those cities build new developments, they need to make sure that a portion of those are set aside at a variety of affordability levels, including very deep affordable subsidies," she said.
Cities must do more than simply provide homes for people at the higher end of the affordability spectrum — about 80 percent of the median-income in the area. "We need family housing and we need to make sure it's accessible and affordable to people at very, very low incomes,"
Dobson suggested that officials look to how other places have handled issues surrounding gentrification and copy what has worked well. He cited Philadelphia's programs, which he termed a "gentrification tax." Philadelphia has a Homestead Exemption that allows homeowners to reduce the value of their land by $30,000 but prevents tax-abated properties from receiving the reduction. The Longtime Owner-Occupants Program gives a substantial, multiyear tax break to those longtime owners whose values at least tripled in a year.
Cities also have an obligation under the former housing laws to make sure that their affordable units meet certain standards of comfort and safety.
"In urban areas, there is the rehab requirement" in the law, Berger said, adding she hopes that will continue as the state's courts consider housing requirements for municipalities in the post-COAH world. "There is also the right of first return," giving people who had lived in or near a place "first dibs" when a property is refurbished, even if that means providing a subsidy for the individual.
One former COAH housing policy that the advocates agreed the state should not resurrect was the regional contribution agreement, a program through which a municipality could transfer up to half of its obligation to another municipality and provide a payment which that community could use to build the number of units transferred. What typically wound up happening under the program was that a suburb would transfer a housing obligation to a city, but new homes were not built.
"That did not work so well," Berger said, adding that some mayors took money and used it to repair roofs or boilers, but not to build affordable homes. "We were successful in outlawing that practice."
The Legislature passed a bill, signed by the previous governor, eliminating those agreements in a revision of the Fair Housing Act in 2008.
"Unfortunately, some of our urban mayors did take some of that money and affordable housing did not get built where it should have," Dobson agreed.
When asked what else cities could do to make housing affordable, Berger said, "Rent control would be really freaking helpful."
But to really get large numbers of affordable dwellings constructed in the cities and across the state it will take a lot more money.
"The next governor needs to significantly raise taxes on the people who can afford it and that would give us a tremendous amount of ability to afford the things we need, affordable homes," Berger said. "The only way we are going to be able to do that is to go back to the tax policies we had when the state was thriving."