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The Man at the Center of New Jersey’s Affordable Housing Debate

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, new chairman of key housing committee, says the conversation on fair and cost-effective accommodation in Garden State has just begun

Benjie Wimberly
Credit: NJTV News
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly has planned more hearings on affordable housing.

Last month, the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee held a nearly four-hour public hearing, where some charged that racism plays a role in some local opposition to building affordable housing in New Jersey communities.

But despite sparks flying over the racism accusations, the hearing ran smoothly, getting through the dozens who asked to testify shortly before the time the committee chairman had hoped to finish.

It was the first real test of the leadership of Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic). The 53-year-old Paterson man was named chairman of the committee three months ago, replacing its longtime leader Jerry Green, who died last April. He chaired his first hearing on June 11, but it was a quick meeting to advance three bills.

The committee had been relatively quiet due to Green’s long illness. But housing remains a pressing issue, from municipal anger over settlements that have given some suburban communities affordable-housing quotas approaching 1,000 units to the dubious designation of New Jersey as the state with the highest rate of foreclosures.

Wimberly, who has served in the Assembly since 2012, called last month’s hearing to start the conversation on affordable housing. He plans to hold three more hearings around the state before the end of the year, as well as regular committee meetings to move legislation.

Wimberly sat down with NJ Spotlight to talk about housing.

Q: What do you say when people say “affordable housing is going to change the character of our community?”

A: That’s where you get into, you know, borderline racism. That’s what I said was the elephant in the room, right? And it was brought out by the NAACP. Let's be realistic, there are communities that don’t want people of color. They don't want people of another socio-economic class. They don't want them in the school district.

They'll talk about infrastructure and about overcrowding. It makes sense when you have infrastructure, when you have transit, when you have transportation, that's a good place to build housing. But again, it seems like the idea is, “We'll let them live there. We'll give you the money.” There's an element of racism in this, of classism, whatever you want to call it, and it's just not fair.

We have been fighting for fair funding for schools. No kids really should be deprived of a quality education just because of their ZIP code. New Jersey is a very diverse state, but at the same time, I think we're among the most segregated. I don't care if you're Republican, Democrat, whatever, you shouldn't want to be part of that narrative right now.

Q: How long do you think it will take to come up with a legislative solution for affordable housing?

A: I think it’s something you have to do piecemeal. It’s not going to be overnight. I have four hearings before the new year. And during that time I'm going to try to push as many relevant bills through, as leadership sees fit. We still have mold and lead and slumlords. We have a lot to address. But affordable housing will be right at the top of the list.

Q: Were you surprised to hear people advocating for a return of COAH (the Council on Affordable Housing that used to oversee the setting of housing obligations and rules)?

A: I was pretty surprised. Nobody liked it, but now they’re saying, “We'll settle for that.” I think we've got to look at the benefits. What was good about COAH? What didn't work for COAH? I haven't heard anything from the administration that they're interested in utilizing COAH.

There's no one size fits all in this thing. This is a case where we're going to have to say what applies to Hawthorne may not apply to a South Jersey town or a rural town in western Jersey. I think at some point we're going to visit Park Ridge. Obviously, it's a heavy Republican area, but I want to understand their issues and concerns.

I'm a firm believer that in certain areas of our state we don’t need to build anymore. We need to keep as much green and blue land as possible. I think the issues we’ve faced with flooding and storms of the last couple of years, I think that has a lot to do with overbuilding. In certain areas, I will be with them 100 percent saying this is not a place that needs to be developed.

But we also have to keep as much green space and open space for kids in cities like Paterson. I'm glad to see more affordable housing units go up, but we also need more playgrounds. When developers come in with their plans, we should say, “You're also going to put a swimming pool inside. There’s got to be a playground for these kids to get out and catch some fresh air, you know? I grew up in public housing and within that housing complex there were baseball fields and a portable swimming pool in the summertime.

Affordable housing COAH

Q: A lot of people at the hearing brought up that affordable-housing units are coming off the rolls, the units are expiring. Does that seem like an easy partial solution?

A: That’s definitely a priority. It came up because it seems like a natural. If you can keep those kinds of units, then you don't have to provide that many more.

Q: Does the continuous involvement of the courts complicate this issue, because you've got to wonder, “Am I doing something that will hold up?”

A: The reality is we have to deal with the courts.

Q: The courts did say in the last big Mount Laurel ruling that they wanted the Legislature to act.

A: They are inviting us. So that's good.

Q: And you feel that the speaker is supportive of getting some affordable housing legislation done?

A: Yeah, definitely. I said I wanted to do the hearings and he said, “Let’s go.” So that was very encouraging.

Beyond affordable housing, one of my things is obviously the safety of some of these rental properties and some of these dormant properties that are abandoned. You have a city like Paterson with 3,000 foreclosed properties. We need to be a little more creative.

What are millennials going to do now? I read today that it costs anywhere from $19,000 to $80,000 to finish a college education. How do you buy a home?

We’ve basically outpriced young people, blue-collar, hard-working people, teachers. We have to make that opportunity in cities like Paterson. We should make it affordable for them to get that house that has been sitting here and boarded up or bank-owned. That’s right at the top of my list outside of affordable housing.

Q: You mentioned at the hearing that you are concerned about veterans’ housing.

A: We have to do better on that. I don't know the percentages, but the number of homeless veterans nationally is sickening. You serve your country, you have all these benefits, and you’re not taking advantage of them because of mental health issues, because of access issues.

When you see the homeless now, I think if we housed them, we would save money on healthcare, and they would become employable. If you don't have an address, you can't get a job. If you're living outside, how healthy are you? Those kids, what chance do they have to be successful academically? You're probably getting three, four hours of sleep at night, you don't feel safe. The homeless are another housing issue we need to look at.

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