Speed, simplicity are essential for COAH

This is another point of view on the COAH affordable housing debate. This was published in the Bergen Record.

Speed, simplicity are essential
Monday, March 5, 2007

By PETER REINHART

An appellate court decision in January that voided the state’s guidelines for affordable housing was an essential step in getting back on course to providing homes for New Jersey’s low- and moderate-income workers.

The court said, “The rules frustrate, rather than further, a realistic opportunity for the production of affordable housing.” Many New Jersey organizations providing low- and moderate-income housing agreed.

K Hovnanian, the state’s largest homebuilder and the largest for-profit provider of affordable housing, joined other organizations taking a stand against the third-round rules when the Council on Affordable Housing issued them in 2004.

Those organizations believed the rules would defeat the very purpose the council was obligated to address. “Growth share,” the backbone of the discredited rules, assumed growth, and few New Jersey towns welcome growth without economic incentives or the force of law. If the state were to conduct a “growth fit” study in which it determined where new homes could be built and what support and incentives towns needed to make those new homes a reality, then a share of those new homes would be affordable. No such study has ever been conducted.

Out-of-state labor force

Meanwhile, finding a home in New Jersey continues to be difficult, especially for low- or middle-income workers, the very people who maintain our businesses and governments. If they can’t find housing, they’ll move where housing is affordable. Businesses that need such workers will follow them. Indeed, failure to resolve this conundrum will accelerate an economic death spiral into which the state already is slipping. It is widely known that an increasing number of workers in New Jersey cross the border to Pennsylvania to go home.

Wasting time by appealing this decision will only exacerbate the economic quicksand in which we find ourselves. The court gave policymakers six months to develop new target numbers and new rules for determining municipal obligations for meeting those goals. Instead of wasting another year in court, COAH members need to embrace the spirit of the law, determine the numbers and get it right on the first try.

In doing so, they need to make the new rules simple so they are understandable. They need to avoid using techniques that twist the numbers to make it appear we need fewer affordable homes, a technique specifically criticized by the court. Such maneuvers make no sense, especially in a market constrained by a harsh regulatory climate. COAH members need to recognize that housing for families with children is essential. And they must acknowledge that most New Jerseyans understand and support the need for affordable housing.

Go beyond court order

There also is an opportunity here to go beyond setting goals and assigning numbers. After dealing with the basics — the new rules people have been waiting for — policymakers have a chance to go beyond and develop a comprehensive, coherent and integrated housing plan for New Jersey.

People who care about New Jersey’s future can only hope that the administration seizes upon the opportunity. If COAH and the administration fail again, it will be time for lawmakers to assign the task to someone other than COAH.

An integrated housing plan should be a key facet of the economic growth that Governor Corzine rightly sees as the solution to New Jersey’s near-term and long-term fiscal problems. State leaders must realize that companies cannot relocate or expand in New Jersey if their potential workers cannot find an affordable home in the Garden State.

The court has given our leaders six months to correct the failures of the current policy. That’s not a lot of time, but it is enough if they focus on the issue, build consensus among interested parties and take a realistic and transparent approach to solving the problem.

Peter Reinhart is a senior vice president and general counsel of Hovnanian Enterprises. He was a member of COAH from 1993 to 2004.

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