Housing reform advances in New Jersey

June 16, 2008 2:28:37 PM PDT
The Assembly on Monday approved sweeping reforms to the state's affordable housing laws after a fierce debate over whether the measure would make housing available to all throughout the state or spark costly suburban development. The Assembly voted 45-33 to approve the bill that would, among other things, abolish a state law allowing suburban towns to pay cities to take their required affordable housing allotments.

"The time may have come to really and truly honor our commitment to fair housing in New Jersey," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., a bill sponsor.

The bill may be considered by the Senate next week.

New Jersey is the only state with a constitutional requirement to create affordable housing, but critics contend that has failed.

Census data shows New Jersey is the second most expensive state for homeowners and the fourth for renters, despite a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling forcing all municipalities to provide housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

Before the vote, faith-based groups called for lawmakers to abolish the law allowing suburban towns to pay cities to take their affordable housing, arguing it's made the state economically and racially segregated.

"It is time to end this immoral practice once and for all," said the Rev. David B. Thornton of the United Presbyterian Church in Paterson during a rally on the Statehouse steps.

Critics contend the bill would push housing into suburban communities fighting overdevelopment. Assemblyman Gary R. Chiusano, R-Sussex, said abolishing the law would "shoot up property taxes and develop remaining open spaces."

"It's going to be a horrendous situation for these municipalities," said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris.

The measure would:

- Bar suburban towns from paying cities to take their affordable housing requirements. The agreements have been hailed as providing housing money to poor cities, but blasted as failing to promote affordable suburban housing.

- Create a fee on commercial development, which would raise up to $120 million to help bring 115,000 new affordable homes by 2018.

- Require 20 percent of housing in developments that get state funding be set aside as affordable.

- Allow municipalities in the Highlands, Pinelands, Meadowlands, Fort Monmouth and Atlantic City regions to jointly provide affordable housing around job and transportation centers.

- Permit developers to compete for tax credits to help build affordable housing.

"This is probably the most challenging issue I've ever confronted," said Roberts, D-Camden. "There's a reason this issue hasn't been tackled in the last 20 years. It's one that threatens the status quo."