Op-Ed: Thousands of New Affordable Homes Now Possible for NJ

Christian Estevez | February 25, 2019 | Opinion
The courts have played a key role in helping ensure towns accept responsibility for affordable housing and the Murphy administration is undertaking landmark reforms

Christian Estevez
Decades of discriminatory practices relegated many minority citizens to neighborhoods without access to the opportunities afforded to more affluent residents and towns. They mired New Jersey in an affordable housing crisis.

But thanks to a series of New Jersey Supreme Court decisions, that is changing. Local and state officials are now working with housing advocates and civil rights leaders to implement plans that will lead to the construction of thousands of new homes for working families, seniors and people with disabilities.

Access to affordable housing breaks down barriers created by institutionalized racism. It expands opportunities for people of color — particularly Latinos and African-Americans — who have been previously priced out of or excluded from living in more desirable communities.

Despite the progress being made, there is still a small group of towns that don’t recognize how critical it is for us to bring an end to segregation in our state. The Legislature needs to reject their proposals — which are aimed at halting the current legal process and giving towns license to discriminate, rewarding bad actors at the expense of towns that have played by the rules.

The current court-run affordable housing process was jump-started by a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that broke through longstanding gridlock in Trenton that kept our fair housing laws from being properly enforced for 16 years.

Towns have several options

This process has achieved important results, bringing towns to work with the courts, advocates and local nonprofits, like Habitat for Humanity, to develop and implement innovative housing plans.

Being able to move into a wealthy town from a distressed city changed the course of my life. When my family was able to move out of Plainfield to a nearby suburb, I was able to attend better-resourced schools that could give me the support I needed to succeed. And my family was also closer to job opportunities.

Today, more than 250 towns have fair housing settlements in place that are creating new opportunities for children across the state. Many projects already have broken ground.

Towns have several options to meet their obligations.

They can approve inclusionary developments that allow market-rate units to subsidize new affordable homes without any taxpayer support. Towns can also work with local nonprofits to build 100 percent affordable developments utilizing state and federal funds, as well as local affordable housing trust funds set aside for this purpose.

Municipal officials can also ask the courts to adjust obligations to take into account environmental concerns and available vacant land. By working with builders and the courts, our towns are expanding and creating housing opportunities.

Renewing urban centers

Municipalities who have proactively planned for affordable housing are also able to take advantage of reforms put in place by Gov. Phil Murphy. His administration is carrying out landmark reforms to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which funds affordable rental housing projects. The state is working to use these funds to achieve racial and socioeconomic integration by channeling millions of additional dollars to projects in high-opportunity communities, close to good schools and jobs.

At the same time, the state is committing to using money under the program — which comes from the federal government but is administered by Trenton — to renew our urban centers.

The Legislature, too, can play a critical role in tackling the current housing crisis. Legislative leaders, including Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin protected the state’s housing laws from multiple attempts by former Gov. Christie to gut them.

And we are developing close relationships with Housing Committee chairmen Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and Sen. Troy Singleton, who have recently taken the reins and are interested in pursuing positive action to address affordability issues.

New Jersey has more foreclosed homes than any other state, but legislative proposals championed by both towns and housing advocates can breathe new life into these vacant properties. Proposals that provide resources to towns to convert vacant, foreclosed homes into new affordable housing can bring relief to municipalities struggling with blight — as well as families on years-long waiting lists for affordable housing.

Over the past four years, we’ve made great strides in reversing generations’ worth of institutionalized segregation. The court process is helping ensure towns accept responsibility for affordable housing, and that good work will continue as long as additional towns feel the pressure to come to the negotiating table. We need to stay the course on behalf of the tens of thousands of working families across our state who are waiting for the chance to move into a good home they can afford.