Leveling the playing field in NJ is theme at economic development conference in AC

They’re the people who decide much of what gets built in New Jersey — developers, bankers and real-estate investors, government officials — and they’ve gathered in Atlantic City this week for the 23rd Annual Governor’s Conference on Housing and Economic Development.

On Monday, the kickoff of the two-day conference, the participants largely sang from the same hymnal, hitting on the theme of fostering equality in a state with vast extremes of affluence and poverty, and where the level of economic activity varies greatly by region.

“I think it’s time for us to understand, if we go from one end of our state to the other, there is poverty everywhere, there is disinvestment everywhere,” said Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, who leads the state Department of Community Affairs. “We have a lot of older industrial cities in our state. We have to re-think what those commercial corridors in those communities can be.”

The conference is designed, according to the state, to “build on the foundations of a stronger and fairer economy in New Jersey to expand housing opportunities affordable to all, create new jobs and develop opportunities for innovative industries.” It’s hosted by four state agencies — DCA, the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, the Economic Development Authority, and the less well known Redevelopment Authority.

The development of affordable housing occupied much of the agenda for the conference. It’s been a perennial and contentious issue in New Jersey. Some among the field of panelists spoke well of Gov. Phil Murphy’s record on the subject.

“Now since the governor has taken office, either through tax credits or other financing, provided the beginning for another 5,100 units of affordable housing and another 400 market rate, “ said Charles Richman, executive director of the state HMFA, who also noted that thousands of privately financed units have also been built.

Rev. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., a former New Jersey Secretary of State, who’s a Baptist pastor and a pioneer of faith-based community development, delivered the keynote address. He noted the challenges the state faces in its density, diversity, and inequality.

“We’ve got some folks in our state who are big shots on Wall Street, they’re mega-investors, they’re capitalists, they run hedge funds, and they’re right here in New Jersey,” he said. “Yet we can leave this hotel and walk eight minutes and see people with college degrees who are sleeping outside.”

Some of the discussion Monday focused on a new factor in the effort to stimulate development in disadvantaged communities — the “opportunity zones” authorized under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, championed by the Trump administration.

New Jersey has 169 of the zones, which offer investors significant tax breaks on income derived from investments made within the specified geography.

“Opportunity zones represent a $6 trillion opportunity, but you have got to do the work,” said Maurice Jones, president and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a non-profit financial institution that supports community development.

One seasoned redevelopment official had a word of cautionary advice for those looking to undertake community development efforts.

”This is not about you,” said Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the NJ Redevelopment Authority. “This is about your community. This is about the people that live in your community that need a job. They need somewhere to live, they need community facilities and as long as we walk into these meetings with investors and it’s about us, we’re losing.”