Providing basic housing for New Jerseyans going outside suburban box

This opinion piece was published in today’s Bergen Record. We share their observations on COAH and affordable housing. if you would like to share your opinion click here.

The Bergen Record, Monday, March 5, 2007

By BRUCE DAVIDSON and TIMOTHY J. TUOHEY

In 1975 the state Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could not use zoning to control housing development, effectively mandating that affordable housing had to be available in every community in this state.

Since then, the Council on Affordable Housing has had responsibility for establishing rules to make this happen. In late January, the state Appellate Division of Superior Court rejected COAH’s most recent rules, agreeing that they were not adequate in responding to actual need.

However, while significant, the court decision alone will not actually lead to the kind of comprehensive strategy necessary to solve New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis.

In 2006, the Brookings Institution called the lack of affordable housing the top threat to New Jersey’s future. Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Katz reported that New Jersey “faces the toughest housing challenges of any state in the nation.”

The significant lack of affordable housing available to New Jersey’s low-, moderate- and middle-income households prevents many nurses, teachers, police officers, security guards and home health aides from living here. If we cannot house such people or if they cannot live near where they work, our state’s economic well-being and quality of life will suffer.

Keep people in their homes

Also, thousands of people living on low incomes provided by retirement pensions, Social Security and disability benefits identify the lack of safe, decent and affordable housing as their greatest challenge. Every year hundreds of people are forced to leave homes and neighborhoods where they have lived for decades because their fixed or limited incomes can no longer keep pace with the rising costs of housing.

Affordable housing built through COAH compliance produces only a small portion of what is actually needed to house the state’s low-, middle- and moderate-income households. In terms of actually addressing the state’s affordable housing needs, there is much more promise in another proposal.

Two years ago, a group of more than 270 prominent New Jersey builders, bankers, religious organizations, real estate companies, advocacy groups and apartment owners coalesced around the issue of providing sufficient affordable housing. Coming from widely varied perspectives, everyone saw New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis as profoundly threatening to the state’s future. Out of this concern, Homes for New Jersey was created and a detailed plan to preserve or produce 100.000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years was developed and presented.

Maintain existing stock

Although compliance with COAH rules is a part of this plan, it includes many other concrete steps the state could take to ensure adequate provision of affordable housing in New Jersey. The plan includes practical and viable strategies that have been accepted and reviewed by leaders in New Jersey’s banking, business and non-profit communities, many of which are used in other states. The recommendations specifically address the following principles:

Redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization: As suburban land becomes scarcer, we must explore building well-planned, high-quality housing in New Jersey’s cities. This must be mixed-income housing, available for people of all income levels.

Subsidized housing production: Land use and tax policies need to be reformed to lower housing costs so that available public sector subsidies can be stretched to cover additional units.

Preserving existing housing stock: It is not possible to produce enough new housing to both meet future needs and replace what is lost to age and redevelopment. Strong policies must ensure that existing affordable housing will be preserved.

Providing housing for people with very low incomes, the homeless and households with special needs. Large numbers of households in this state have housing needs that require special, targeted efforts that go beyond increasing the availability and affordability of housing. Any comprehensive housing plan must assure that the most vulnerable populations will be housed and served appropriately.

A matter of will

In his election campaign, Governor Corzine embraced the goal of preserving or producing 100,000 units of affordable housing, and has affirmed his commitment to this many times since taking office. So far, however, no specific plan has come from the Governor’s Office for achieving this goal, although one was anticipated by the end of last year. Significant energy will be required to respond to the Appellate Court decision on COAH. However, this should not delay the implementation of more comprehensive plans for 100,000 units.

Addressing New Jersey’s housing needs is a matter of will and commitment. Homes for New Jersey partners stand ready to work with Corzine, his Cabinet and the Legislature to finalize and implement a plan to achieve their, and our, affordable housing goals. It is time to give New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis the focus, leadership and attention it deserves.

Bruce Davidson and Timothy J. Touhey are co-chairmen of Homes for New Jersey.

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