More affordable homes, please

This was an editorial in today’s Home News Tribune. To read the court decision click here.

More affordable homes, please

Home News Tribune Online 05/27/07

New Jersey got yet another well-deserved wake-up call a week ago when a three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled that the Meadowlands Commission is responsible for ensuring affordable housing be built on the 21,000 acres it oversees. Housing experts say the ruling has broader implications, especially for the large swaths of undeveloped land in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state that also are overseen by state-appointed commissions: the Highlands and the Pinelands.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has promised to build 100,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years, but his promise has rung somewhat hollow. In January, his predecessor’s affordable-housing regulations, which had been panned by advocates, were declared unconstitutional. Rather than using the opening given him to push through aggressive and much-needed reforms, the administration responded with silence and bureaucratic delay. The court gave it until July to draft new regulations; it has asked for an extension.

The latest ruling is welcome not simply because it broadens the parties that are responsible for planning and zoning for affordable housing but, therefore, heightens the possibility that affordable housing will, in fact, be built. It also is to be embraced because it strengthens the state’s hand in trying to control development in great swaths of the state’s dwindling open space. If used correctly and smartly by the Corzine administration, or any others that might follow, it also might ensure the state promotes and employs smart, new urban growth in areas it chooses to develop, rather than finding itself littered with acres of sprawl that have too often been an outcome of municipalities’ ill-conceived affordable-housing plans.

The ruling also points to the wisdom of governing affordable housing through the method known as “growth-share.” The beauty of growth-share is that it enables the state to minimize development in places like the Pinelands and the Highlands while guaranteeing affordable housing in places that need it.

Under such a method, a certain number of affordable units are required in every new housing development, and a certain number are required for every project that creates jobs. The McGreevey administration employed this strategy, although it set laughably high ratios. The usual ratio is one in every four or five new housing units and one for every five jobs. Former Gov. James E. McGreevey’s rules required an affordable unit for every eight built, and one for every 25 jobs.

The largest Meadowlands project thus far is the mammoth amusement and shopping complex known as Xanadu. It is slated to create 50,000 jobs. Even under McGreevey’s regulations, that would qualify the area for 2,000 units of affordable housing; in other states, it might mean as many as 10,000 units. It also is the perfect place to build affordable housing as part of residential development, since the majority of jobs created in the complex are likely to be lower-paying service-sector jobs, and it would mean a great deal to those people and their families, as well as to the state as a whole, to have housing that would allow them to walk, bike or take some sort of shuttle service to work. The housing also might help to make Xanadu feel like a town rather than a freak show in the swamp.

It is, in other words, much to be hoped that the ruling might spur the Corzine government to embrace affordable housing — and smart state planning with it.