N.J. has a new affordable housing law, but it will take years for it to make a difference

A new affordable housing law in N.J. abolishes COAH and directs the Dept. of Community Affairs to help make affordable housing a reality.

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A close-up of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

File photo: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the statehouse, in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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New Jersey Gov Phil Murphy signed a law Wednesday to expand affordable housing across the state.

But even in the best-case scenario, it will take several years before these homes are built and become available for low- and middle-income families.

Proponents insist the new law will address the housing shortage, now at a crisis level, in a meaningful way.

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New Jersey state Senator Troy Singleton, a key sponsor of the legislation, said the new law will allow municipalities to determine their present and prospective fair housing obligations and have a detailed, timely and predictive system that allows for creation of new reasonably-priced homes.

But some lawmakers insist it will make a bad situation worse, and send already sky-high property taxes even higher.

New Jersey Republican state Senator Declan O’Scanlon, who serves on the law and public safety committee, said the new law could be one of the most negatively impactful pieces of legislation that’s been passed in decades.

“It mandates levels of affordable housing that many, many communities, particularly our suburban ones, can’t sustain,” he said. “It is a dramatic over-reach, and could potentially negatively impact our communities, and the whole way of life in New Jersey.”

He said the guidelines are vague, and towns could be required to construct as many as half-a-million new units over the next 10 years, with 100,000 of them being affordable homes. Building experts agree that’s virtually impossible.

The new law stipulates that starting next year, the state Department of Community Affairs will establish non-binding calculations of municipalities’ current and prospective need for affordable housing using a formula based on prior court decisions. Any disputes about a town’s affordable housing obligations will be settled by the courts, based on a new dispute resolution program.The law also encourages municipalities to build senior housing units, while providing incentives to expand affordable housing near transit hubs and supermarkets.

Affordable housing in N.J. has always been a contentious issue

Forty-nine years ago this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling stating that every municipality has a constitutional obligation to “make realistically possible an appropriate variety and choice of housing.”

The court also stipulated that New Jersey towns cannot stand in the way of opportunities for low- and moderate-income housing, a ruling that became known as the Mount Laurel doctrine. But since then the issue has become polarized and politicized.

The Council on Affordable Housing, COAH, was established in 1985 to enforce the Mount Laurel doctrine, but the state Supreme Court ruled the Council was essentially non-functional nine years ago, after then Governor Chris Christie suspended the operations of COAH in 2010.

Some wealthy towns have resisted efforts to build homes that are economical, and long-simmering arguments about zoning and infrastructure have remained unresolved. That’s resulted in an affordable housing shortage in the Garden State, now estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 units.

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Beverly Brown Ruggia, the financial justice program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said it’s estimated that a New Jersey resident earning the current minimum wage of $15.13 an hour would need to have three full-time jobs to be able to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment within state boundaries.

“The costs are exorbitant; the availability of affordable units is at a level that’s unsustainable,” she said.

She said the new law takes N.J. forward into a process that should allow the state and municipalities to start producing the kind of affordable housing that can address the shortage.

Republicans have said the new law will force towns to hike property taxes but a Princeton University study found there is no proof that would happen.

Singleton said the objective is to ensure that all New Jerseyans, no matter their race or how much money they earn, can live throughout the state.

“We want to make sure that New Jersey’s rich mosaic that it is, is replete with people from all walks of life across it,” he said. “Predictability is our goal here, we want towns to understand what their obligations are, and we want the community to know where housing is going to be directed toward to create opportunities for all.”

O’Scanlon said he supports the idea of expanding affordable housing, but he doesn’t agree with how the law came into being

“This should have been done in a much more deliberative way, with stakeholders, municipal officials included, and I don’t think it was,” he said.

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