Democratic, Republican Candidates Detail Plans for Affordable Housing

Courting millennials, building tiny houses, adding a cabinet-level position — gubernatorial candidates have plenty to say on this controversial topic

tiny house
This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for a look at where the gubernatorial candidates stand on undocumented immigrants and legalizing marijuana; the hottest district races; an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.One issue that has gotten little attention in this year’s gubernatorial election is the often-controversial topic of affordable housing.

It’s an important one, though, in a state where nearly half of adults ages 18-34 live with their parents — the highest percentage in the nation — and where a renter must earn about $27 an hour to reasonably afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s also important because state law and landmark state Supreme Court decisions, known collectively as the Mount Laurel doctrine after the Burlington County township whose exclusionary zoning sparked the first cases more than 40 years ago, require all communities to provide for their share of the regional need for affordable housing.

primary promo cutline
Yet New Jersey has not had a workable statewide program for the construction of homes for low- and moderate-income people for 17 years, and Gov. Chris Christie essentially ended state oversight of the issue after taking office when he all but dismantled the Council on Affordable Housing. The responsibility for determining how many units municipalities must zone for is now in the courts.

That process has been working in some cases and dragging in others; some municipalities readily agreed to build affordable homes, while such officials as Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) are complaining of “forced overdevelopment.”

Fair Share Housing Center, the main litigant in all the cases, has estimated a total of 280,000 units are required statewide to fill the need for low-cost housing from 1999 through 2025; some of those are rehabilitation and some of those may already have been built.

Not a strictly partisan issue

But this is not an issue that necessarily splits along party lines, as Democrats in some parts of the state are as frustrated as Republicans when large municipal obligations are set. And while the Legislature had created COAH to deal with Mount Laurel issues as part of the Fair Housing Act, officials on all sides of the issue often were dissatisfied with the council’s work and none of the candidates is seeking to resurrect COAH.

The question of how to deal with the state’s lack of affordable housing has not been discussed much, but all four of the major Democratic candidates have developed detailed positions on the topic.

The Democrats on affordable housing

Jim Johnson, a former assistant treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, has said he will make the issue a priority, putting an affordable housing program as well as efforts to deal with foreclosures under a new state Department of Housing.

“By failing to prioritize the creation of affordable housing, Trenton has created a vicious cycle where lack of housing limits good job opportunities and revenue for local communities, resulting in higher taxes and fewer services,” Johnson stated. “In order to turn that around, the state needs to make a sustained effort to invest in affordable housing.”

Johnson, who served as an affordable-housing monitor in Westchester County, said building homes that are “affordable and attractive to millennials” is going to be key to helping the state’s young adults and also to improving the economy.

The specifics of his six-point plan are:

  • Providing tax credits to affordable, mixed-income housing developments;
  • Creating a Millennial Housing Incentive Program to help young professionals with housing costs using incentives that could include mortgage downpayment assistance, rent subsidies, urban homesteading incentives and discounted mortgage rates;
  • Enacting strong tenants’ rights protections so renters cannot be evicted at will;
  • Reforming the state’s local housing authorities so these have the resources they need and are staffed by experts;
  • Banning the payments some developers are allowed to make to a city’s affordable-housing trust fund instead of building low-income units as part of a development;
  • Better funding the state Rental Assistance Program.
  • Cabinet-level positions

    Like Johnson, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Middlesex lawyer probably best known for his chairmanship of the committee that investigated the Bridgegate scandal, would elevate the issue of housing to a cabinet-level position.

    “New Jersey has ignored its affordable housing crisis for decades,” Wisniewski said. “That must change now.”

    Touting his own record, Wisniewski said he voted in 2008 to eliminate the use of regional contribution agreements that had allowed municipalities to pay to transfer their housing obligations to other towns. Building some 200,000 affordable units statewide will be a challenge, Wisniewski said, and his experience in land-use law will be helpful.

    One of the first objectives of the housing office he would create would be to streamline the land-use approval process to make affordable housing cheaper to plan for, cheaper to develop, and eventually cheaper to build. Wisniewski said he would also seek tougher penalties for banks that practice redlining — denying mortgages based on race. He would direct his attorney general to investigate reverse-mortgage scams in New Jersey to protect elderly homeowners.

    Wisniewski is also proposing a unique program known as a statewide community land trust that has been used successfully in Vermont, Boston, and Atlanta. This would reduce the cost of buying a home as the state would own the land, while the individual would own the home. The trust could purchase foreclosed properties and offer the houses for sale at more affordable prices while the state holds the title to the land. Such a program “could start immediately to help get ahead of the current affordable housing crisis,” Wisniewski said. The trust would also work with municipalities to help them meet their mandated housing obligations.

    Putting the blame on Christie

    Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive who also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, has also put forth a housing plan. He blames Christie for the state’s high housing costs and property taxes.

    “Gov. Christie has waged war on affordable housing in order to pay for giveaways to developers and special interests, and he has turned his back on homeowners who need help,” Murphy states on his campaign website. “We face an affordable-housing crisis in our state.”

    Murphy’s plan includes:

  • Stopping Christie’s practice of diverting affordable housing funds to plug holes in the budget;
  • Expanding counseling programs to keep people in their homes and repurposing foreclosed properties as affordable housing;
  • Expanding tax credits to create new housing;
  • Lowering property taxes by funding our schools, incentivizing shared services, and restoring rebates to low-income, seniors, and disabled residents.
  • Out of reach

    Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a lawyer and long-time Union County lawmaker, has a keen interest in this issue and has sponsored a number of bills designed to solve different aspects of the housing problem.

    “Housing in New Jersey is not only unaffordable for low income residents, it’s often unaffordable for those earning above the state’s medium income as well,” states Lesniak on his website.

    Early in the Christie administration, he sponsored a bill to change the state’s Fair Housing Act to make it more palatable to municipalities and Christie and restart the process of building affordable units a decade after the last COAH rules had expired, but the governor vetoed the legislation. Christie also vetoed — three times — another Lesniak bill that sought to transform abandoned foreclosed homes into housing for the poor.

    If elected, he plans to put in place the Mortgage Foreclosure Transformation Act, which would use financing through the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to repurpose foreclosed houses. He also would provide $650 million in tax credits for affordable housing development in low- and moderate-income inner city neighborhoods, saying the credits would pay for themselves by stabilizing neighborhoods and attracting businesses to the cities.

    ‘Tiny homes’

    Lesniak would also enact legislation allowing for the construction of “tiny homes” — he is currently co-sponsoring a bill (S-2110), that would create a tiny-house pilot project through the NJHMFA that would help struggling residents get housing in small, affordable homes. Such a program would help seniors, empty nesters, and the homeless “have a safe, comfortable and affordable place to live,” he said.

    Bill Brennan, a former fireman and activist who tried to sue Christie over Bridgegate, criticized state and local governments for “avoiding their obligations under COAH for decades.”

    His plan involves having the state oversee the process of putting local tradespeople to work building houses on public property, bypassing private developers. State-subsidized affordable housing will be “high-end construction with full amenities” offered for sale at below market value, he said. He envisions the homes as being two-family buildings that require the owner to offer the second unit at below market rent to tenants who qualify for affordable housing.

    “These homes will not be clustered anywhere but rather will be located within communities that have fought against their own obligation for years,” Brennan added.

    A sixth Democrat in the race, Tenafly Council President Mark Zinna, did not provide his affordable housing plan.

    The Republican take

    Of the five Republicans running, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Somerset County business owner and CPA, was the only one with a detailed plan.

    “We need the executive branch to take the lead in forging a legislative solution,” he said.

    Ciattarelli would seek to set each municipality’s affordable housing quota as a multiple of the number of low-paying jobs in that community. Additional units then would be added to accommodate groups like senior citizens, veterans, the disabled, and millennials. Towns would still collect fees from developers to contribute to the development of affordable housing “above and beyond their quota” and outside their municipal boundaries through RCAs.

    The RCAs would be used to build affordable-housing units in accordance with smart-growth strategies — for example, near mass transit, or in areas with a great need for population growth and economic development. 

    Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff, believes that developing an approach to the problem that “all sides can agree to” will improve the quality of life for all, said Ricky Diaz, her campaign spokesman.

    “The lieutenant governor believes judges shouldn’t be determining the state’s housing policy with random quotas,” he said. “The key to cracking the code on affordable housing is to develop a rational, objective-based policy that puts housing where the jobs and transportation hubs are.”

    Out of the hands of the courts

    Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, a retired police officer, agrees that the issue needs to be taken out of the hands of the courts.

    “We have too much judicial and government overreach with regard to issues like this,” he said. “As governor I will leave such issues like this in the hands of the people who live in communities affected by these mandates.”

    Rogers added that he would like to see veterans and those with disabilities or special needs receive priority for affordable housing.

    Joseph Rudy Rullo, a landscape contractor did not so much offer a plan as attack the court, saying, “COAH should be dissolved and we need new justices who will stop forcing towns to bankrupt themselves with affordable housing.”

    The fifth Republican candidate, Hirsh Singh, did not answer a request for his position on the affordable-housing issue.