AFFORDABLE HOUSING: REFORM MEANS DICEY POLITICS

Do you live in oneof the Garden State's nearly 200 suburban and rural communities that have residential developments on their drawing boards? If so, then the odds are increasing that affordable housing will soon be coming to a neighborhood near you. That's if a coalitionthat includesaffordable housing advocates, urban mayors, and the Speaker of the Assembly can convince Governor Jon Corzine to support a major change in state policy thatincludesending the practice ofregional contribution agreements (RCA's). The proposed reforms, which the Governor seems likely to support, may be good policy. But even in a state noted for its citizens'liberal and moderate social views, the politics surrounding the issue of affordable housing can bedicey.

Due to what Edward Banfield called"the logic of metropolitan growth" and conscious choice by local public officials, New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the nation.Large scale suburbanization started in the 1950's when baby-boomers began demanding single-family houses.Asworkingclass and middle class residents left center cities, evensmall ones like my hometown of Perth Amboy, retail businesses followed. They were soon joined by business offices, light manufacturing factories, and warehouses. In a few short decades, the Garden State became the mall and office park state.

In many cities the housingvacated by the new suburbaniteswas inhabited by African-Americans migrating from the South. Then came new immigrants, first from the Caribbean and Central and South America, then from Asia, and, with the collapse of the old Soviet empire, from eastern Europe. With the decline of manufacturing in cities and in the state generally and in retail jobs inurban areas, the economic prospects of new urbaniteswas not bright.

Low incomes in the inner cityled to a decline in the housing stock, which ownershad a hard time maintaining and landlords had little incentive to do.The exodus of businesses from urban areas meant fewer ratables and hence less revenue for municipal services and schools. Declining servicesand a lower quality of life made cities even less attractiveto would-be investors.The downward economic spiral continuedforyears, andonly a fewNew Jersey cities have been ableto reverse their fortunes.

In the meantime the state Supreme Court rulings in the Abbott v. Burke cases have taken considerable pressure off of urban taxpayers.However, despite enormous expenditureson urban schools, student performance has improved only slightly. Violent crime remains a big problem in cities andis compoundedby the prevalence of street gangs.Small wonderwhy many current urban residents would, like their predecessors, want to relocate to the suburbs where there are better jobs andschools. What the suburbs do not have, however, are many homes and apartments that low and moderate income folks can afford.

In the Mount Laurel cases, the state Supreme Court ruled that developing communities must not practice "exclusionary zoning" andinstead must usetheir zoning powers toprovide housing opportunities for low and moderate income people.Developing communities would have to assure that a certain percentage of new housing was set aside for low and moderate income residents. The court's ruling was controversial to say the least.But no more so than the court's subsequentacceptance of thepractice of allowing developing communities to enter into regional contribution agreements (RCA's)with cities. RAC's enabled suburban and rural communities to buy out of their so-called Mount Laurel obligation by transferring funds toarea citiesthat would accept affordable housing units within their borders.

RCA's were touted as a good deal for both sides. The suburbs were able to retain the middle or upper-class character of their communities consistent with the expectations ofresidents, some of whom may have recently bought expensive homes there. And, the cities got some much needed upgrades in housing stock that improved the quality of life for some residents andperhaps madeolderurban areasmore attractive to investors. But after years of the practice, critics complain that RCA's have kept low-income minorities segregated in citiesanddenied them access tothe safe neighborhoods, better schools, and job opportunities in thestate's growingsuburbs.

So, the New Jersey Regional Coalition, various religious-based and community advocacy groups, and now some urban mayors are calling for a major reform of state housing policy.Such reform would include a comprehensive strategy that ends RCA's, requires affordable housing to be built in developing suburban and rural communities, – as intended by the original Mount Laurel decision -, and the establishment of a fund to rehabilitate housing in urban and older suburban areas. Advocates also want to address the needs of the homeless and recommend that the state increase school aid to suburban and rural districts that experience enrollment increases due to the new housing policy.

Late last year Speaker Joe Roberts proposed the elimination of RCA's and using part of the revenues gained from the real estate transfer tax for a newurban housing fund. Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, until recently one of the strongest supporters of RCA's, has since become an advocate of the comprehensive approach discussed above. Earlier this year Governor Corzine told the Black Ministers Council that he wants to end the use of RCA's. And,the Governorhas set a goal of providing 100,000 more units of affordable housing throughout the state and not just in urban areas.

One important group disagrees with these reform proposals. The New Jersey League of Municipalities wants to keep the RCA's, presumably to preserve the flexibility of suburban and rural communities and toprovide cities with a means of getting money for new housing. Givenstate government'stough fiscal situation, it isn't clear that it can afford tofund lots of affordable housing even if itdoes usesome revenues from the real estate transfer tax.

Nonetheless, the real issue here is a social one that can have some serious political ramifications.Yes, New Jersey is one of the nation's most diverse states. Most citizens decry racism in any form and support government policies that encourage socio-economic opportunity. Voters have elected a Democratic governor and put Democratic majorities in the state legislature. Governor Corzine refers to himself as a progressive, and he and Democratic legislative leaders regularly affirm their commitment to Abbott funding and for policies aimed at helping the truly needy. However, supporting aid and palliative measures are different than telling residents in suburban and rural communities that they will now have low and moderate income neighbors. And neighbors who, given migration and immigration patterns, may happen to be racial, ethnic, and perhaps even religious minorities.

This fall is a legislative election year, and it will be interesting to see if incumbents and challengers are willing to talk a lot about housing policy reform.Even if they aren't, citizens would be well advised to do so and come clean about their own views on this issue. For example, those who like to preach the celebration of diversity should decide if theyare willing to practice it with the new peoplewho may be livingnext door.

Others who believe that dysfunctional lower-income folkshave a lot to learn about middle-class valuesshould ask themselves if it's good for the state if they can teach those values first hand to new neighbors. And, those New Jerseyans who are angry about how businesses hire illegal immigrants to staff jobs that should be heldby citizens should consider whether it makes sense to enabletheir fellow Americans to live closer to where some good jobs are.

Operationalizing one's own views – be they liberal, moderate or conservative – for the good of societytypically requires changes. And, not just for people who presumably willbe helped but also for those who purport to be the helpers.As such, it would hardly be a surprise if, like the politicians, manyNew Jerseyans would simply rather avoid talking about thisissue.Instead they would rather continue to complain about urban squalor, thedecline ofvalues, and high levels of aid to Abbottschool districts,likethey have been doing for the last fifteen years or more, and wonder why things don't change.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Directorof the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics(www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: REFORM MEANS DICEY POLITICS