Legislative plan to overhaul affordable housing prompts applause, warnings

By: - December 20, 2023 5:40 pm

New legislation that would overhaul New Jersey's affordable housing strategy prompted divisive debate at its first public hearing on Dec. 20, 2023, at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

New legislation trumpeted as a fix for New Jersey’s worsening shortage of affordable housing could cause unintended problems if state lawmakers insist on passing it in the dwindling lame-duck session, advocates warned.

The bill, first unveiled Monday, had its first public hearing Wednesday, with a packed room of advocates testifying for two hours before the Assembly’s housing committee.

On one side were affordable housing advocates who cheered the bill, a 70-page document that offers a wide-ranging set of solutions to New Jersey’s roughly 200,000-unit shortage of affordable housing.

“Every town needs to provide housing for every socio-economic group in New Jersey,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, board chair of the Fair Share Housing Center. “The person that mows the lawn has as much right to live in the town as the person whose lawn is being mowed. The person making the cheeseburger has as much right to live in the town as the person eating it.”

But critics complained lawmakers gave municipalities little time to digest and respond to the dense proposal and are unwisely fast-tracking it to the governor’s desk without sufficient scrutiny before the current legislative session ends Jan. 9.

“It is shameful that members of the legislative body think it’s OK to introduce such an important and critical bill that dramatically affects every single one of the 564 municipalities in New Jersey in the last two weeks of the legislative session,” said Christina Albrecht, a resident of Readington. “I implore you to table this bill and reintroduce in the next session so that residents, municipal officials, and municipal legal representation may carefully review and provide input.”

The legislation is a “monumental shift in current policy” with statewide impact, said Frank Marshall of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

New Jersey’s current approach to affordable housing — as first outlined in Mount Laurel Doctrine, a series of court decisions requiring municipalities to provide low- and moderate-income housing within their borders — is “an insane process that, frankly, has provided a lot of revenue for law firms,” said Bill Caruso, legislative counsel for the New Jersey Conference of Mayors.

Still, he said, the legislation isn’t clear on how the state would distribute the bill’s $16 million appropriation to towns where roads, utilities, schools, and more would be burdened by expanding affordable housing.

“Transportation infrastructure, energy infrastructure, water and sewer — these are paramount concerns. These don’t just fall out of the sky as Christmas miracles,” Caruso said. “These are real-world concerns that local governments have to deal with. We don’t make them up.”

Some critics objected to the legislation’s language encouraging affordable housing development on vacant land, saying lawmakers should instead prioritize redevelopment of unused malls, office parks, and other spaces. Some questioned a requirement for affordable housing for seniors, saying many people who need affordable housing are families with children.

Others warned of the legislation’s impact on rural areas and protested its provision to sunset the largely defunct Council on Affordable Housing and transfer its regulatory powers to the courts, the Department of Community Affairs, and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

The courts declared the council “moribund” in 2015 and have overseen affordable housing obligations since, but about a dozen towns sued Gov. Phil Murphy last year to bring back the council to protect towns from “runaway development.”

Jacqueline Hindle chairs the planning board in Readington Township, one of the towns that sued.

“We are a relatively rural, quiet community. We have more horse farms than any other municipality in the state. We boast a buffalo farm. We pride ourselves on our green space and open space. Most of our homes run on private wells and septic systems. We are not a hub to any major metropolis and have limited access to public transportation,” Hindle said. “And yet our round three affordable housing court mandate far exceeds other similar municipalities.”

Adam Gordon, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, reminded lawmakers that New Jersey’s housing costs have steadily risen, leading to a housing crisis statewide that is especially acute in communities of color.

“What is the policy sense of saying that we should keep a system in place that was done in 1985?” Gordon said. “This system … didn’t work for 16 years under six governors of both parties. It’s sort of like a Charlie Brown-and-the-football moment, right? I mean, why would we say that we should continue down that pathway?”

Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates, echoed that sentiment.

“As state government, there are times when you have to make decisions that are for the greater good of the people despite the challenges that it might pose for municipal local governments,” Kelly said. “Because at the end of the day, we want to ensure that every citizen in New Jersey has access to the stable housing that they need to need to thrive.”

The Assembly’s housing committee advanced the bill, which still must be heard in committee in the Senate and passed by both full bodies before it can go to the governor’s desk.

 

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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