Op-Ed: Victory Seen in Fight over Affordable Housing in NJ

Christian Estevez | February 26, 2020 | Opinion
Nearly 350 towns have now reached settlements with fair-housing advocates, paving the way for thousands of new residences

After years of struggle, New Jersey can finally mark an important victory in the fight for fair and affordable housing.

Years of inaction from Trenton had helped make our state — one of the most expensive in the country — even more segregated. But decisive action by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2015 helped break through the gridlock, reviving our fair-housing laws, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, by giving the courts jurisdiction over enforcement.

Four years later, almost all of the 350 towns that sought court approval for their housing plans have reached settlements with advocates and civil-rights leaders to clear the way for the construction of tens of thousands of new homes for working families, in safe neighborhoods that are close to jobs and good schools.

Our state is now a national leader in the fight for affordable and inclusive housing. New Jersey has done much in such a short period of time to ensure that wealthier communities are opened up to people of all races and income levels.

With thousands of new homes being built across the state, good jobs and schools will soon be in reach for families locked out of opportunity by restrictive zoning rules that artificially drove up the cost of housing.

These new homes represent a renewed sense of promise and the hope for a bright future, giving parents and grandparents a leg up in the struggle to lift their children out of poverty.

And they prove the naysayers wrong.

Unfounded fears

For years, powerful forces within our state kept us from making progress in the fight to address New Jersey’s affordable-housing crisis, claiming that expanding opportunities for low-income families and breaking down barriers of racial exclusion would somehow hurt middle-class families.

Instead, we’re learning that our communities are stronger when blighted office parks and empty strip malls are redeveloped into vibrant mixed-use communities that reduce sprawl and increase affordability with diverse housing options, like apartments and starter homes.

The affordable-housing process established by the state Supreme Court didn’t just cut through years of Trenton gridlock. It also brought towns to the table with advocates and nonprofits to come up with creative solutions that leveraged new reforms at the state level.

Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy instituted changes to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a federal program administered at the state level that funds affordable rental-housing projects. The administration’s reforms ensured millions of additional dollars would flow to projects in wealthier, whiter suburban communities to tackle the problem of racial segregation — while still preserving funds to rebuild urban centers.

We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this major civil-rights victory without leadership from the governor, the courts and our legislative leaders. Sticking with the court process has gotten shovels in the ground and opened doors to high-opportunity communities.

More work needs to be done

But as far as we’ve come, there is still more we can do to ensure we take full advantage of this historic opportunity.

The Legislature and the governor must work together to combat insidious racial barriers that can prevent families of color from moving into these new homes.

We need to pass strong new protections that ensure that New Jerseyans aren’t excluded from housing opportunities because of prior criminal convictions.

Affordable-housing opportunities are also sometimes difficult to track down for working families. We need a central clearinghouse that residents and advocates can turn to.

And we still need to build on the work Governor Murphy and the Legislature have already done to tackle the current foreclosure crisis by converting vacant and abandoned residential properties into new affordable-housing opportunities.

The new homes being constructed as a result of the Mount Laurel doctrine won’t end our state’s housing crisis. Far more people need access to safe, affordable homes than exist in our state.

But the fair and aggressive enforcement of our fair-housing laws provides real opportunities for tens of thousands of families.

It’s time to celebrate this milestone while continuing the fight so that every New Jersey family, no matter their race or income, has the ability to live in a community with good schools and jobs.