Leaders of the New Jersey Builders Association gathered Wednesday to mark the opening of this year’s Atlantic Builders Convention, which returned to Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center in Atlantic City. — Courtesy: NJBA
By Joshua Burd
Thousands of homebuilders and service providers flocked to Atlantic City this week for the return of the Atlantic Builders Convention, where the breadth of the industry was on full display alongside a renewed focus on housing affordability.
Hosted by the New Jersey Builders Association, the vast tradeshow was projected to draw more than 3,000 attendees after officially opening Wednesday morning. The program also marked its return to the month of March, its longtime place on the calendar, after being canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and coming back in October 2021 with a more muted turnout.
By several accounts, that familiarity was beneficial to this year’s event, which had a sold-out exhibitor floor and large crowds streaming through Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center.
“I’m personally excited to see people coming out again and that we’re sharing information and products,” said Frank Belgiovine, CEO and president of Belmont Construction Corp., who is this year’s NJBA board president. “The industry has taken a back seat for a while, but I have a strong feeling that it’s really coming into its own and improving again.”
Jeff Kolakowski, the association’s CEO, added that the homebuilding sector was rebounding after a “tumultuous” stretch of more than a decade that began with the Great Recession and continued into the start of the COVID-19 crisis. He said he believes that the business is “resetting, like a lot of industries are right now, and I think the attendance and the numbers that we’re seeing are emblematic of the industry starting to come back and build our way out of the economic malaise that we may find ourselves in right now.”
That reset has come with new enthusiasm and a fresh chance to address the high cost of housing in New Jersey.
“There’s certainly a renewed focus on affordability in Trenton, and that’s music to our ears as an industry,” Kolakowski said. “We’ve certainly seen a lot of positive things, but there’s so much we need to do if we’re really going to try to create an affordable housing market and if my members are allowed to create a diverse housing stock that’s safe and decent here in the state. There’s so much lost ground that we have to make up for.”
The NJBA in recent months has celebrated some legislative and regulatory victories, including the passage of a law that allows developers to hire private-sector code inspectors if local officials cannot complete a review within three business days of a requested date. At the same time, the association and other real estate industry groups are grappling with the prospect of costs tied to Gov. Phil Murphy’s sweeping agenda focused on climate change and sustainability.
Those additional costs figure to impact the economics of residential development, Belgiovine and Kolakowski said, from lower-income housing to middle class starter homes. That’s especially critical in a period of rising interest rates, they added.
“The most difficult piece is starter homes and the missing middle,” Kolakowski said. “That’s where the economics just don’t work on that housing product and that’s the thing that we most need in New Jersey to make sure that people have the opportunity to live, work and raise a family here and have that next generation who value all of the great things that New Jersey has to offer. Right now, they’re boxed out of the New Jersey market.”
Fortunately, Belgiovine said, NJBA will stay focused on those issues with the help of a new generation of builders and professionals, which are climbing the ranks of its four regional affiliates: the Builders League of South Jersey, the Builders Association of Northern New Jersey, the Metropolitan Builders & Contractors Association of New Jersey and the Shore Builders Association of Central New Jersey.
“We have a young crowd coming into the different ladders, which eventually will trickle up to the association, and they’re all excited about what’s going on with the industry,” he said. “I think we’ll do quite well in the years to come.”