Housing crisis creating unaffordable rents, committee told

TRENTON – The rent is too damn high! For New Jerseyans, that’s the gist of the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2011 report claiming the state is one of the most expensive in the union for apartment rental costs.

Today, the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee heard testimony from the report’s author and affordable housing advocates.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based housing policy group that compiled the report, a family in New Jersey must earn an hourly wage of $24.54 to rent and pay the utilities for “a safe and modest home,” the fourth most expensive in the country.

Arnold Cohen, policy coordinator for the Housing and Community Development Network of N.J., was critical  of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for moving affordable housing monies into rent subsidy programs, totaling a swing of $23 million over three years. Cohen said that represents over $10 million lost taxes because those units weren’t created.

Barbara Dunn, executive director of Paterson Habitat for Humanity, agreed.

“The plain truth is that New Jersey is still in a housing crisis,” Dunn said. “Gov. Christie’s proposed budget (has) no money to either build or rehabilitate new homes in place…We’re in the middle of a housing crisis and the governor’s answer is to build nothing.”

She said a family in New Jersey needs to  earn over $50,000 per year to afford a “modest” two-bedroom apartment, leaving “large groups of professionally-employed individuals” getting priced out of their rental apartments. “These are the folks that make our economy work,” she said, “and we must protect them.”

According to the NLIHC report, an estimated 61 percent of New Jersey renters do not earn enough to afford a typical market rate apartment.

Beside subsidization, Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25), of Morris Twp., asked what the state can do to increase housing stock.

Conor Fennessy, vice president of the N.J. Apartment Association, made a few recommendations that could help kick-start the low- to middle-income housing market. An increase in housing stock would reduce rental costs.

“It’s our tax policy that affects it. It’s our land use policy that affects it,” he told the committee. “The other piece, of course, is the regulatory burden.”

He said a bill sponsored by committee vice chair, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27), of South Orange, would cut regulatory costs for multi-dwelling units – which are regulated both by the state and the municipalities.

It’s an unnecessary burden, Fennessy said, “when you’re paying twice for a registration and when you’re paying twice for an inspection.”

The second recommendation is to bring housing boiler regulations current with available technology .

“It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important one,” Fennessy said, noting that the antiquated reg requires building managers to check boilers every two hours – a job now computerized in modern boilers. “Unfortunately, the regulations haven’t been kept up.”

The third recommendation is to revisit lead paint codes that overlap with federal regulations.

He also said streamlined planning and zoning processes and a definitive answer on the future of the Council on Affordable Housing would also be helpful.

“I think many developers right now are in a holding pattern,” he said.