This is the third story in an occasional series assessing and exploring where the leading candidates stand on the most important issues facing New Jersey. Follow these links to read the first and second articles in this series.
The major candidates for governor share some basic views on New Jersey’s need to be more affordable, but do not agree on who or what caused, or at least exacerbated, what many advocates today consider an affordable-housing crisis in the state.
Last week’s final debate between Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Wall Street executive and ambassador to Germany, highlighted the disagreement. Guadagno said New Jersey needs to “fix the affordable housing act.” Murphy’s response: “This administration has done everything they can to kick the can down the road through the courts. They have taken money out of dedicated funds. ” Guadagno protested those statements, but history shows Murphy’s characterization to be fairly accurate.
[img-narrow:/assets/17/1023/0027]Gov. Chris Christie, with whom Guadagno has served since the beginning of the administration in January 2010, did not start the state’s neglect of the issue, but he did continue and worsen it.
Christie tried more than once to get rid of the state Council on Affordable Housing, which is charged with overseeing the process of creating and implementing rules that include setting municipal housing quotas. He also vetoed more than once legislation that sought to revise the state’s Fair Housing Act. And he diverted money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which is supposed to be used to build affordable homes and to pay for rental assistance and other nonhousing programs formerly funded through the state’s general fund, as well as cutting or eliminating three other housing-assistance programs.
That’s not to say that no homes for those of low and moderate income have been built over the past eight years. Some have been built, and the administration has funded the construction of some of those.
Affordable housing MIA
But New Jersey has not had a workable statewide affordable housing process for 17 years and needs, by one advocate’s count, some 280,000 new or refurbished units to meet all the pent up demand and to house new households through 2025. Opponents scoff at that estimate, but New Jersey is the state with the highest percentage of adults ages 18-34 living with their parents — nearly half of all those covered by that age bracket. It also has some of the highest rental costs in the nation: A renter must earn about $27 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Affordable housing has been a divisive issue in the state for some four decades, following the state Supreme Court’s first and subsequent decisions that are known collectively as the Mount Laurel doctrine after the Burlington County township whose exclusionary zoning sparked the first cases.
The court’s rulings require all communities to provide for their share of the regional need for affordable housing. New Jersey’s FHA established a mechanism for doing that, although the process of determining how many homes a municipality must zone for that can be afforded by residents with low and moderate incomes is now in the courts, after the state Supreme Court took the responsibility away from a dysfunctional COAH.
Murphy’s affordable housing plans
A contentious topic, affordable housing is not often among candidates’ priorities. That’s not true this year, at least not as far as Murphy is concerned. His website spells out his plans and he has fleshed out at least some of them during debates and other campaign appearances.
For starters, Murphy pledged to stop “diverting affordable housing funds to plug holes in the budget.” A recent “Crossroads NJ” report on housing from The Fund for New Jersey (a funder of NJ Spotlight) stated that $52 million was diverted last year alone. He also said he would expand tax credits to build new housing, though he has not provided more specifics.
Murphy has promised to expand counseling programs to keep people from losing their homes and has a program to repurpose foreclosed properties as affordable housing. That could provide a substantial boost in properties, given New Jersey has the second-worst foreclosure rate in the nation — currently one of every 788 homes in foreclosure, according to Bankrate.com.
At the last debate, Murphy was critical of the Christie administration’s inaction on such a program, saying, “they’ve also not done what other states have done, which is to buy up empty foreclosed homes and convert them to affordable.” Christie twice vetoed legislation that would have done just that.
Murphy has said he would use money from the banks’ mortgage settlement funds, of which he said New Jersey has not received its fair share, to purchase foreclosed homes and partner with nonprofit agencies to turn them into affordable housing. He would also use the public bank he has proposed to provide lines of credit to nonprofits for expanding affordable housing.
The final plank in Murphy’s housing platform is to make living in existing homes more affordable by fully funding public education and providing incentives to boost shared services to lower property taxes, and to restore property tax rebates to some of those who have lost their rebates in recent years.
“I want help for the folks who fought and stayed, not just for the folks who come there because the cities have momentum,” Murphy said, addressing the question from last week’s debate about how to stop gentrification from making cities like Jersey City and Newark unaffordable to longtime residents. “It’s gotta work for the folks who fought and stayed.”
Guadagno’s property-tax plank
Although she does not address the issue of affordable housing on her campaign website, Guadagno sees her plan to lower property taxes for some as one key way of making the state more affordable to those who own homes here, as well as attract others to consider buying in the state. Under her plan, Guadagno would cap the amount a property owner would have to pay in taxes for schools at 5 percent of income.
“The lieutenant governor’s property tax cut plan will help keep millennials in New Jersey by capping school taxes to 5 percent of household income,” said Ricky Diaz, her spokesman, addressing specifically the concern raised in some reports that millennials are not settling here because they find New Jersey too expensive. “The way the program is designed, it helps those like millennials who may want to buy a house but are turned off from it because of the uncertainty surrounding property taxes. Her plan will give them certainty they’ll afford to stay here.”
At the debate, Guadagno called for amending the FHA, but gave no specifics. Diaz said she does not support the current system in which the courts determine municipal housing obligations.
“The lieutenant governor believes affordable housing quotas should not be a random figure pulled from thin air or based on the whims of unelected judges,” said Diaz. “Recent court rulings threaten to send municipalities into disarray and only reinforce the need for New Jersey to rethink and reinvent our state’s affordable housing approach.”
Where the jobs are
The lynchpin of her housing policy, Guadagno said, is to “put housing where the jobs are, where the transportation” is. “We can do that by simply having a state plan,” she added.
New Jersey has a state plan, but it has received little attention during the Christie years.
Diaz expanded on that. “Instead of forcing a municipality to build affordable housing where there are no jobs based on an outdated formula, Kim understands that we should focus our efforts on where housing is actually needed, its potential impact on economic development and the potential cost to taxpayers,” he said.
“The Guadagno administration would reform New Jersey’s affordable housing strategy so that it is rooted in sound economic policy and serves a catalyst for economic growth, not a drain on property taxes, education, and emergency services.”
Neither candidate has weighed in on what the Crossroads NJ housing report deemed to be the first or most important step the next governor should take to boost affordable housing in the state: Adopt the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey’s $600 million “Build a Thriving New Jersey” plan to build or rehabilitate more than 100,000 affordable homes.