A rendering of a new 54-unit affordable senior housing complex at 1410 Riverton Road in Cinnaminson — Courtesy: New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency
By Peter S. Reinhart
With 2020 underway, New Jersey is almost 50 years removed from the birth of the Mount Laurel doctrine. After multiple Supreme Court decisions, the creation of the Council on Affordable Housing by the Legislature, and its subsequent power stripping by the Supreme Court in 2015, over 60,000 units of affordable housing (as defined by the New Jersey Supreme Court) have been created. Many thousand more units are awaiting development as the result of the guerrilla warfare settlements between the Fair Share Housing Center and hundreds of individual municipalities. Indeed, reports late last year said there were only about 33 towns remaining in litigation.
So, does that mean that the battle over affordable housing in New Jersey is over? Nothing could be further from the truth. The New Jersey experience with affordable housing grew out of exclusionary zoning that was rampant in the state. But demographic changes, technology innovations, economic shifts in both the types of companies and the manner of conducting work are having profound impacts on the need for workers and places for them to live. At the same time, the baby boom generation is looking to move from their larger single-family detached homes which were the dominant housing form for many decades. These boomers are finding that, unlike the last 40 years, the younger buyers are less interested in single-family housing, particularly in suburban locations not near mass transit.
Now add in the fiscal issues confronting New Jersey. Our state’s fiscal house is a disaster. Our pension and health care obligations are so daunting, our property taxes are the highest in the nation. People moving out of the state are higher income earners than those people moving into the state. (A recent analysis shows people moving in make about 73 percent of those moving out.)
While New Jersey is not alone in feeling the shift from boomers to millennials and Generation Xers, our housing stock is predominately more detached and more suburban than other states. In large part, our zoning has not adjusted to the new demand from these younger generations of buyers and renters. Cities and towns with mass transit are doing better in allowing higher density, but with a few exceptions, more can be done. This imbalance of supply and demand means high rents and high prices for these market desirable homes. Some of these new developments have an affordable component (commonly referred to as COAH units), but the market units are not affordable to average workers.
Some other states and cities have made some radical adjustments. The city of Minneapolis no longer allows single-family detached homes to be constructed in the city. Seattle and Portland, Oregon are going that way also. Even the state of Virginia is discussing a similar idea. In a few places, notably the very high cost areas of Northern California and Seattle, very large companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are dedicating billions of dollars toward the affordable housing crisis.
What can New Jersey do? Most of the traditional suburbs that experienced the boom of the post-World War II growth have done little to make themselves attractive to the younger generations. I would submit we need a new concerted effort to address the shortage of housing to meet the needs of the new workforce. This would not be a judicial-created doctrine like the Mount Laurel doctrine, but a joint effort among housing providers, business community and state and municipal government leaders.
We could begin with a holistic look at the barriers to such housing, which would include zoning changes, but would not stop there. What fiscal incentives, and costs, to and from businesses are feasible? What can the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency do to help with affordability? How can the many millions of dollars sitting idle in municipal affordable housing trust funds be put to use? What construction or development costs can be eliminated or reduced to improve affordability? What government-owned lands can be used?
Zoning to allow higher density in all towns is needed. Suburban towns that cling to larger lot detached housing will continue to slowly decline as existing homes go unsold without drastic price reductions; tax revenues decline as prices fall; the burden on those remaining taxpayers increases. Companies thinking about relocating to New Jersey will look elsewhere. If the high cost of doing business isn’t enough to discourage them, the unavailability of housing for their employees will do it.
Just as the housing market adapted and grew to accommodate the housing needs for the baby boom generation in the second half of the 20th century, we need a similar movement to accommodate the housing for those born in the 1980s and beyond. Affordability was not a major issue in those boom years following World War II. It is now. If the state of New Jersey is going to remain a premier state for those current residents and to attract future residents, affordable housing needs to be a key component of the formula for success.
This will take real leadership at all levels of government. Without the threat of judicial intervention under the Mount Laurel doctrine, elected officials will have to acknowledge the need for affordable housing and take proactive steps. They will not be able to blame the courts. The business community and real estate industry will need to be very involved in helping find creative solutions. Cookie cutter options will be rare. Adaptive reuse will be the norm. Creative financing packages involving government and private sources will be needed. The public will need to be educated and convinced. Elected officials will need to look beyond the next election. Yes, there will inevitably be NIMBYs opposed to change. Home rule traditions must adapt from opposing development to attracting the type of development to enable the town to provide fiscal stability and growth instead of the slow decline inevitable without change.
I truly hope that New Jersey is ready to make this commitment. Without it, the decline in our ability to compete nationally and globally will continue. No doubt New Jersey is blessed with an excellent location for business. Our residents are generally happy with the state. But that will not continue if we are unable to effectively compete.
Peter S. Reinhart, Esq., is the director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University. He is also the Chair of New Jersey Future.