NJ’s affordable housing crisis: how are towns meeting demand?

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | August 30, 2017 | Politics

The State Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing has confounded municipalities and complicated urban planning since it was handed down. There is still widespread dispute over the number of homes each municipality is required to provide. In the meantime, towns are finding creative solutions for those still Chasing the Dream. In the final part of our series, Correspondent Briana Vannozzi went to Mount Laurel where it all began.

Fair Share Housing Center’s Rev. Eric Dobson showed NJTV News cameras a newly constructed road to see the latest housing development inside the original Ethel Lawrence neighborhood of Mount Laurel. The affordable units of single family and town homes will be ready within a year.

“Many aren’t aware this affordable housing facility exists. So it seamlessly integrated into the town,” said Dobson.

In fact, there is a six to seven year waiting list for Ethel Lawrence. It’s been the shining beacon in New Jersey’s tainted affordable housing history.

“That’s the key, when it’s done well, it works,” said Dobson. “We know integration works, we just haven’t fully tried it.”

There are a number of towns getting creative with meeting their affordable housing obligation. Woodbridge Township is one. The government is using federal, state and private funding to build Jacobs Landing. In April, the Woodbridge Housing Authority announced it would be building the new development while still housing the original 150 tenants.

“What it does is, it breaks generations of cycles of poverty,” Dobson said. “It changes the whole history of a family who at one time had very little opportunity to live in a safe neighborhood and get an education.”

Former Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa named another town that is working to meet its obligations.

“In Metuchen, where Peter Cammarano is mayor, they’ve had a 15 percent set-aside ordinance for years. More than 10 years. So every developer, whether they’re big or small, have to find a way to incorporate into their project a 15 percent set-aside. And that is not without cost to the development community, but there is certainty there.”

But there are also places like Newark and Princeton, where despite construction on units for seniors or low income neighbors, there are waiting lists thousands of families long. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi points to one town with booming development as another example.

“We had over 38,000 new units of housing built in Jersey City over the past couple of years. Only a couple hundred are affordable housing. It makes no sense. All of these luxury high rises with PILOT where developers have agreements to pay no property taxes for years,” she said.

Schepisi has proposed ideas like restructuring property taxes to make homes more affordable without building new and taking a harder look at which communities need more housing than others.

“In areas where you have transit and jobs and vibrant communities, instead of having affordable units put there, we did the total opposite. We put nothing there that’s affordable, and instead all of the obligation is coming onto small communities that have no public transportation, no jobs, no services to be provided. We have everything upside down right now,” she said.

Keri Cooper is running for town council in Park Ridge.

“It’s not that we don’t want affordable housing, it’s that we don’t want developers coming in and putting up thousands of units to only give us 10 percent affordable. That’s not helping anybody,” said Cooper. “We want to be able to develop properties for 100 percent affordable housing, but our numbers need to be realistic.”

At Cooper’s house in Park Ridge in Bergen County, she has four big priorities in the debate: her growing kids, all under the age of ten.

“When I heard the Sony property in town was potentially going to 700 units, my first concern was the school and how is that going to impact our school system, because we don’t have the space for more kids,” said Cooper.

At the local elementary school, there are trailers attached to the back of the building that house many of the students’ classes. But Cooper, and many in other towns searching for alternatives to the Supreme Court’s decision on the number of required units, has concerns about changing the fabric of the community, citing housing obligations in the thousands for small suburban areas.

“Municipalities that don’t want to do their fair share claim that they’ll have to do five units for every affordable unit,” said Fair Share Housing Center Founder Peter O’Connor. “So, if their fair share were 200, they’d have to do 1,000 units. If it were 500, they have to do 2,500 units. That is totally false. The Supreme Court has given great deference to municipal decision making. And towns have a laundry list of 10 categories they can choose from to implement fair share. Only one is the development of market rate housing.”

O’Connor said towns can choose strictly senior or group homes as well as “buy downs,” which take existing housing and make it affordable. New Jersey has built just 92,000 affordable units over the last 30 years, a far cry from the Fair Share Housing Center’s estimated need.

Dobson says towns need to find ways to make affordable housing work.

“The argument that we should get rid of entitlement programs, well, here’s one way to get rid of it: integrate. Build more affordable housing so people can get better jobs and now they’re a full participant in the middle class,” he said.

But regardless of partisan stripe, large or small town, all agree: action is needed. Statistics show for every New Jersey family receiving housing assistance, twice as many more are still in need.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.