Accusations of racism were thrown at municipal officials who oppose affordable housing at a state Assembly hearing yesterday that was called to air concerns about the system of setting housing obligations, which can sometimes require municipalities to allow for more than 1,000 units within their borders.
About 100 people crowded two hearing rooms and some waited several hours for the opportunity to sound off to the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, which wanted to get a snapshot of affordable housing in the state that has the sixth-highest rents in the country. Some two dozen were local officials or residents who said their communities cannot meet high affordable-housing obligations because they don’t have the infrastructure or the schools are too small or the homes would change the character of their communities.
But several advocates said the real reason why many suburban municipalities are complaining about their housing obligations boils down to racism and economic segregation.
Racism by any other name
Mike McNeil, chair of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, was the first to bring up the issue, about halfway through the nearly four-hour hearing, but without mentioning it by name.
“Mayors and everybody else need to be honest,” he said. “The only way that we’re going to fix this problem is we need to talk about some things we do not want to talk about … You need to have a conversation with a lot of the mayors so we can sit down and honestly talk about what the true fear is about affordable housing.”
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), chair of the committee, said he agreed, adding, “The tough question is sometimes the elephant in the room that we have to address.”
Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center that has been a party to affordable housing settlements in 220 municipalities across the state and was the target of much ire from municipal officials during the hearing, then named the elephant.
“One cannot discuss affordable housing in the state of New Jersey without recognizing what you, sir, called ‘the elephant in the room,’” Walsh said. “We are one of the most racially and economically segregated states in the nation. We celebrate Martin Luther King Day and our policies too often, especially at the municipal level, result in racial and economic segregation … People don’t say it as loudly as they used to, but what we are talking about is discrimination based on familial status and on race, and let’s talk about that.”
Walsh’s comments drew applause from several rows of those observing the hearing.
Name calling by Fair Share?
But Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) — a vocal critic of the process that has judges overseeing the establishment of housing quotas for municipalities, with Fair Share usually involved — complained that Walsh has refused to consider legislative alternatives. She also charged that he has called her names, including xenophobic.
“You’ve been so quick to just try to shut down any conversation, any reasonable conversation, putting forth the most inflammatory language against any member of this body who’s attempting to do their job and that’s wrong,” she said.
“That’s false,” Walsh quickly interjected.
“It’s unfortunate that the theme that appears to dominate the discussion, at least through your center, is one of racism,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who sat in on the hearing although he is not a member of the committee. “You may, through your testimony, throw race into this discussion. That is your prerogative. But I would submit that there are numbers of housing units that would be deemed overdevelopment, and these mayors who speak before this Legislature have the absolute right and have a legitimate basis in saying there are communities that do not have the infrastructure, land, or systems to support that kind of development. Not every decision, not every position of every mayor in this state is racist.”
“I didn’t say it was,” Walsh responded.
Bramnick’s comment drew applause from the mayors and other officials sitting in the front row.
Raising race issue again
Later in the hearing, two more speakers raised the issue of race again.
Terrence Porter, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church and president of the Red Bank Affordable Housing Corp., said he found it “somewhat disheartening” that many of those speaking against housing obligations did so “from a place of privilege,” rather than looking at the opportunity good homes can provide.
“Race does play a major factor,” he said.
Connie Pascale, who retired from Legal Services of New Jersey after working for 40 years and is now on the board of Solutions to End Poverty Soon, said it’s all about race. He talked about the historical, “intentional,” government-sponsored segregation of New Jersey as the reason why the state is among the most segregated in the nation.
“Thank God for Kevin Walsh and for Mike McNeil, who raised the real issue, which has been the issue since Mount Laurel began, which is race,” Pascale said. “It’s about race. That’s what it is.”
But Jeffrey Surenian, who represented more than 50 municipalities in affordable-housing issues and opposed Fair Share in several housing cases, said towns are not against affordable housing “and it is not racial.” He noted that hundreds of towns have approved housing plans and said officials would not have agreed to zone for affordable homes if they had racist views.
“It is not helping the conversation to make any racial accusations,” he said. “It inflames. It doesn’t help get the ball down the lane.”
Four hearings planned all told
Wednesday’s hearing was the first of four Wimberly plans to hold across the state concerning affordable housing before the end of the year. Recently named chair of the committee, he is looking to explore all sides of the contentious issue.
More than 40 years after the state Supreme Court issued the first of several Mount Laurel rulings requiring all municipalities to provide their “fair share” of the needed affordable housing, the issue continues to be divisive, with many suburban officials saying they cannot handle more development and advocates complaining that those communities continue to balk at satisfying their requirements.
Recently, local officials have complained about having to accept high-density developments combining affordable and market-priced units agreed upon through court settlements. After 16 years of inaction on state housing rules, the Supreme Court gave the Superior Courts the authority to oversee housing matters and approve local housing plans that include zoning.
Mayors speak out against housing obligations
One by one, mayors and other municipal officials from a number of towns came forward to complain that their individual housing obligations are too large to accommodate, particularly through the use of so-called inclusionary developments that typically include four market-priced units for every affordable unit.
Keith Misciagna, mayor of Park Ridge in Bergen County, said the borough has spent some $500,000 to oppose a development of 1,000 units that would increase the size of the community, which he described as mostly built out, by close to 30 percent. He said he is “not opposed” to affordable housing coming into the community, but to the impact it would have.
“You have developers coming in using a metaphorical gun to the head,” he said. “We had one who said, ‘Give us 1,000 units or we will go to a judge and ask for 2,000.’ That’s not what affordable housing is supposed to do, put a gun to our heads.”
Reasons to block affordable housing
Other reasons why a municipality could not handle its allotted obligation included that the community does not have enough sewer capacity or the schools are already overcrowded or there is no public transportation or taxes would have to increase by too much.
Walsh pointed out that as part of the process municipalities only have to zone for the affordable housing but they do not have to build it. And he said communities that work with a nonprofit developer or use state or affordable-housing trust fund money can fulfill their obligations without having to also include much, if any, market-rate housing to minimize any impact on the community.
“There are lots of ways to build affordable housing if we choose,” Pascale said, citing the use of mobile homes and accessory apartments as possibilities. “It’s not rocket science. It’s a lack of the will.”
But in a statement to the committee, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities said the housing requirements to which municipalities are agreeing assume “an unsustainable level of growth” at the same time the state continues to have a high number of foreclosures. It also called the current process by which the courts are approving settlements “costly and ineffective.”
The league and several other speakers suggested the committee consider a number of Republican bills — Schepisi is sponsoring several — that would drastically change the process. Among them are measures that seek to shift housing obligations from municipalities to the state, prohibit exclusionary zoning while not requiring municipalities to build homes, and set housing obligations for such cities as Newark that currently do not have them because they already have an ample stock of affordable housing.
Speakers proposed a host of suggested reforms. Several that were endorsed by multiple speakers included:
Walsh termed these as efforts by municipalities to further delay the process.
He said that he could not give an exact number of affordable units that would result if all the settlements with communities are built out, but said “tens of thousands” of new units could be built. To date, since the first Mount Laurel decision in 1975, 80,000 affordable housing units have been built across the state.
Several advocates said it was heartening to hear all members of the committee say they support the construction of affordable housing, but Walsh questioned how committed they are to seeing homes get built.
“I haven’t seen a hearing start with all of the members saying that they support affordable housing, but do you support racial and economic integration for lower-income black and Hispanic families who are stuck in low opportunity communities?” he asked the members. “Who supports that?”