Poll Finds New Jersey Majority Favors Affordable Housing

Colleen O'Dea | February 2, 2017 | Housing
Two-thirds approve providing homes for those of low- and moderate-income; 53 percent think their own communities have ‘the right amount’

affordable housing
The long-held belief that most suburban New Jerseyans do not like the state’s affordable housing doctrine and policies requiring each municipality to provide its fair share of homes for low- and moderate-income residents may not be true after all.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday found that two-thirds of New Jerseyans favor the placement of housing affordable to the middle class and the low income in their communities, with only 14 percent having an unfavorable view.

Mickey Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said that on the issue of affordable housing and another, school funding, on which the poll tested public opinion, “New Jerseyans seem to be more liberal than politicians have given them credit for.”

Poll shows traces of Not in My Backyard

While this is good news for advocates and builders who have been trying to get more low-cost units built for decades, the poll also shows that some traces of NIMBYism remain, as a majority — 53 percent — said they think their community has “the right amount” of affordable housing. Just 7 percent said there are too many low-cost homes in their towns, while a third said there are not enough.

Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the finding that most people think their town has enough affordable housing “might reflect that while most support the policy, there is still debate over the best means to implement” new housing requirements that individual municipalities are agreeing to meet or debating in the courts.

“Do communities resent the new Supreme Court ruling that reinstates the requirement for thousands of new units of affordable housing? This poll says 3-1 they don’t,” Carroll said. “Voters applaud the decision, but they say their own community has the right amount of affordable housing, meaning they might not be happy to see any more.”

But the issue is complicated and the poll question about the recent court ruling was general and a little misleading: “As you may know, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that all New Jersey communities must allow the development of affordable housing for middle-class and low-income people. Do you agree or disagree with this New Jersey Supreme Court decision?”

State had no valid housing rules between 1999 and 2015

In fact, the case was much more nuanced. The Mount Laurel doctrine, a series of decisions by the Supreme Court, already requires every municipality to provide its “fair share” of its region’s affordable housing needs, and the state’s Fair Housing Act spells out the process for doing that — although the Council on Affordable Housing that used to oversee housing rules is inactive and no longer in charge of the process.

The recent court ruling referred to in the poll states that all communities have to accommodate low-income residents who could not afford a place to live during a 16-year period when affordable-housing regulations were in dispute. The decision states that the fact COAH did not do its job properly for 16 years does not exempt towns from having to meet housing needs that existed during that period and continue to exist today.

Municipalities had been arguing before Superior Court judges — who are setting the housing obligations for communities — that because the FHA only specifies that towns are required to provide for past unfilled needs, present units in poor condition and projected future needs, they should not have to provide homes for people who couldn’t afford housing between 1999 and 2015. During that time, called the “gap period,” the state had no valid housing rules because COAH was unable to adopt regulations that were constitutional in the eyes of the courts.

The full impact of the Supreme Court decision is unclear, but it could mean municipalities being required to zone for 120,000 additional homes for low-income residents.

“I doubt most of the responders are that familiar with the decision,” said Cerra, referring to such terms as “present need” and “gap period.”

“I do think it reflects the general feeling of support for affordable housing, and not this particular decision,” Cerra added.

To date, 94 municipalities have agreed to provide 30,000 affordable homes

The Fair Share Housing Center, the Cherry Hill-based organization that is pushing in the courts for municipalities to provide for affordable housing, saw good news in the poll results. “We are pleased that the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows strong support among New Jerseyans for increasing opportunities for working families, seniors and people with disabilities with continued strong enforcement of our fair housing laws,” said Anthony Campisi, a Fair Share spokesman. “This poll is further evidence of a growing consensus that towns can and should meet their obligations.”

To date, 94 municipalities have reached settlement agreements with Fair Share to provide 30,000 homes affordable to those of modest means. Another 254 are before judges seeking to determine their individual obligations. The court’s decision two weeks ago on the gap period will affect their cases, likely leading to larger requirements in most cases.

Earlier estimates from Fair Share put the total number of units required statewide from the beginning of the gap period through 2025 at 202,000. An expert hired by more than 200 municipalities set that number at a much more modest 36,000, without providing for any need during the 16-year gap period. The Supreme Court ruling applies only to those people and households who became low- or moderate-income between 1999 and 2015 and remain unable to afford housing, meaning both sides are now calculating new obligation estimates to present to the lower courts.