How sly tricks can undermine reform

In today’s Star-Ledger there was an op-ed by John Farmer, Jr. entitled “Sly tricks don’t equal real reform“. Mr. Farmer is a former New Jersey attorney general and was senior counsel to the 9/11 commission. He is now in private practice, and is an adjunct professor of national security law at Rutgers Law School.

His article makes the case for the failure of the so called reform process in NJ. He begins the article by referencing the classic Steve Martin routine in which he claims “you can be a millionaire and not pay taxes.” The punch line is that when Martin’s character is confronted by the IRS about not paying taxes his answer is I forgot.

Mr. Farmer sums up his frustration and what should be ours as well in his closing paragraph. “When that day comes, and a future generation asks why we failed to make the courageous decisions that would have avoided calamity, we may be left to remember Steve Martin’s millionaire. When finally confronted by the IRS about why he hadn’t paid any taxes, he replied, grinning sheepishly, “I forgot!”

The multiple problems that we face cannot be solved by saying we forgot or that we were selfish. We encourage our readers to read Mr. Farmer’s column.

This is an excerpt of his comments on affordable housing.

There are, however, signs of change.

There is no question, for instance, that New Jersey has faced a housing crisis for low- and moderate-income families for decades; this reality led to the infamous Mount Laurel series of Supreme Court decisions mandating the provision of low-income housing.

As recently as 2006, however, the Brookings Institution concluded that, despite decades of housing reform efforts, “New Jersey faces the toughest housing challenges of any state in the nation.” Why?

The answer was delivered recently by Public Advocate Ron Chen in his report “Affordable Housing in New Jersey: Reviving the Promise.” The reason that reform has failed, Chen concludes (though he states it diplomatically), is that reform has been a fraud. We have allowed municipalities to count as “low-income” housing that isn’t affordable by low-in come people.

We have allowed only 2.5 percent of Mount Laurel rental housing to be available to those earning under 35 percent of the median in come, when that population ac counts for over 35 percent of the low-income population. Most important, we have allowed towns to eliminate large portions of their Mount Laurel obligation by outsourcing it in Regional Contribution Agreements. As a consequence, “a town can fulfill the low-income rental requirement without ensuring that any household making less than 35 percent of median income actually occupies a COAH- certified (Council on Affordable Housing) unit in that town.”

When a town does actually take the extraordinary step of building an affordable housing unit, it is awarded “bonus points” that reduce its obligation. Thus, “the affordable housing needs of thou sands of families are simply dismissed by an accounting device.”

That’s how Ron Chen puts it. Steve Martin might put it this way: You can call yourself a housing reformer and not build a single unit of affordable housing!

This is NIMBY-ism with an attitude, a peculiar form of self-righteous and self-satisfied delusion.