The emerging statewide consensus concerning the reform of New Jersey housing policy suggests an important lesson: People can begin to work out their differences when good intentions are melded with solid policy planning and financial commitment.
Much rides on this new consensus. A comprehensive housing policy that addresses the critical issues can both open wide the doors to homeownership for working families and accelerate the momentum of urban cities’ revitalization.
In this effort, we owe much to the openness and problem-solving inclinations of Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden. His proposed bill, A-3857, has raised the volume on the discussion of New Jersey’s Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs), which, while flawed, have been the only real, constant funding mechanism that urban areas have to remove blight and create neighborhoods attractive for working families.
My city, Trenton, has been in the forefront of dealing with the double-edged sword of RCAs. We have used these dollars to produce 1,400 new homes for working families — almost all from Trenton. Frequently, they are renters realizing the American Dream of homeownership. They do not earn six-figure salaries; many work two jobs. On their behalf, I will continue to lead the consensus conversation about housing reform.
The elimination of RCAs can be considered only in the context of a comprehensive discussion of the state of affordable housing in New Jersey. Suburban and rural communities must shoulder their responsibility to provide affordable housing, but corrective action in a financial vacuum could make the situation worse.
New Jersey’s need for affordable housing does not fit neatly into the classic suburban-urban breakdown. The population loss and poverty rates of older suburban communities look more like urban New Jersey. Growth in rural-suburban areas is fueling the anti-growth, anti-schoolchildren and anti-low-income housing mentality throughout our state.
It is time to look at a formula tailored to needs rather than broad categories, and to develop a policy that addresses the financial impact of housing construction as well as long-term impacts of affordable housing initiatives.
After months of debate and intensive discussions with all parties, I have brought forward a multi-step approach to replacing RCAs:
Urban distressed communities must have funding to attract moderate-income and market housing to raise incomes within our older cities. The Neighborhood Preservation Balanced Housing rules and state Council on Affordable Housing regulations need to be evaluated to encourage diverse-income communities.
The state will need to commit to a constitutional change that dedicates a new real estate transfer tax percentage to an Urban Fund. That constitutional provision would prevent funding from being jeopardized by future administrations’ priorities. Urban mayors’ cooperation and endorsement of the elimination of RCAs is contingent upon the establishment of the Urban Fund. Without the replacement funding (new funds not existing in the balanced housing program), we will not be able to support the elimination of RCAs.
Suburban communities must promote diversity and inclusionary housing — and the state should financially support it. A comprehensive approach to the elimination of RCAs must include an economic relief mechanism for towns to shoulder the cost of affordable housing. Considerations should include an offset of school costs associated with affordable developments as well as Balanced Housing and Low Income Tax Credit eligibility for inclusionary housing.
Redeveloping communities should not have the burden to house low-income residents if the census tract already has a majority qualifying as low income.
With COAH in a holding pattern and the Fair Housing Act being amended, the governor should establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordable Housing to address all of these issues in a comprehensive manner.
School funding must be a part of housing discussions. Without addressing schools, we fall short of dealing with the true cause of suburban sprawl and the decline of urban neighborhoods. New Jersey families need quality education choices as well as housing choice. Only then can urban communities redevelop into mixed-income neighborhoods.
Already approved RCAs should be deemed compliant and allowed to transfer funds. No rollback should be included in the reintroduced Roberts bill.
No one disputes that all communities must be involved in the provision of affordable housing on an equitable basis. No one can dispute that revitalization of our urban cities will help address myriad needs, including suburban sprawl and those frustrating commutes so disruptive to both the environment and family life.
We can fix this. Organizations critical to the cause are engaged. I appreciate that the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association, the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Regional Coalition have supported my call for achieving two goals at once. We can address the need for equitable homeownership opportunities for working families — and we can bring back our cities.
Douglas H. Palmer has been mayor of Trenton since 1990. He is past president of both the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. He currently serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.