Spotlight On: Affordable housing

An NJ Spotlight forum put the spotlight on the quest to make progress on the decadeslong battle of building affordable housing in the Garden State.

“The very premise for the original Mt. Laurel litigation and the doctrine to move poor people out of the poverty-stricken urban areas and into the suburbs has literally been turned upside down,” said Peter Reinhart, director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University.

Reinhart says Generation X and millennials’ appetite for city life and access to mass transportation have removed places such as Jersey City from the “poor-city” list when the Mount Laurel lawsuit began five decades ago. There were some unintended consequences.

“There’s now this system of displacement happening as a result of gentrification where now a place in Jersey City like Greenville where the rent was $700 a month 10 years ago. The rent is now $2,000 a month,” said Housing and Community Development Network Board Chairman John Restrepo.

Fair Share Housing Executive Director Kevin Walsh says 283 towns have reached settlements to zone for affordable housing after the courts took over the direction of the issue, making the state Council on Affordable Housing — or COAH — ineffective.

“The local self-interest of politicians rarely involves how can we in overwhelming white municipalities near Newark provide opportunities for people who are living in entrenched conditions of racial and economic apartheid. The conversation doesn’t voluntarily happen,” Walsh said.

Walsh and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi have clashed over affordable housing. Schepisi says even though COAH was dysfunctional, it had a place.

“I’m one of the people advocating that we actually put COAH back in place because that was better than what we’re doing now. And as a member of the Legislature, I respectfully disagree with Kevin saying that this is something that we should have the courts continually be doing. I’m a legislator. We are here to make the laws for the state of New Jersey. We have abdicated our responsibility and our jobs as elected officials,” she said.

One developer took on the question of incentives — tax credits and subsidies — to build.

“And the reason I think New Jersey has to focus on the cash and not the density is because there is a fallacy in the basis that the developer pays for the affordable housing. The developer does not pay for the affordable housing. The market-rate buyer pays for the affordable housing. And so we’ve made, on both ends of the scale, our market rate too expensive because we are adding the cost and the cost burden of providing the affordables in the inclusionary,” said Christiana Foglio, founder and CEO of Community Investment Strategies.

The Murphy administration has $60 million in the budget for it in the next fiscal year. But after hearing the discussion, housing advocates expressed a lot of concern about the $60 million in the budget and whether lawmakers will approve it.

“I think that there are enough legislators in both chambers and a governor who’s publicly committed to preserving the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that at the end of the day everyone will do the right thing. But we are going to stay vigilant,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

“The $60 million is not a give. It’s a promise not to take,” Foglio said.

In the midst of the long political battle, many towns are rezoning sites for affordable housing, and landowners and developers are making concessions to get it done. Builder K. Hovnanian says Arbors at Monroe is one example.

The development has 48 Route 33-facing low and moderate rent units. Behind them are 186 single-family town houses worth $500,000+. Fair Share Housing says it exemplifies towns, advocates and developers’ relentlessness in New Jersey providing affordable housing.