NJ a national role model for affordable housing? This report tallies recent success

New Jersey towns doubled the rate at which they built affordable housing after a judge declared the statewide agency meant to oversee such construction defunct in 2015, shifting the process to court settlements, according to a report released Wednesday by Fair Share Housing Center.

The analysis argues that states across the country should emulate New Jersey’s legal framework for zoning and building affordable housing, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine — a process that increased the production of multifamily housing and began integrating a segregated state, the nonprofit found. The report comes as New Jersey towns look ahead to 2025, the year they must reconsider their zoning codes and calculate how many new units of affordable housing they are required to build.

Critics of the current system want to delay these discussions or reconstitute the obsolete statewide agency that used to approve affordable housing plans, called the Council on Affordable Housing.

"It’s not just the numbers — the process really is breaking down barriers and giving people in need of housing, particularly people of color and lower-income people, access to communities that have historically excluded them," said Adam Gordon, executive director of Fair Share Housing Center.

A series of influential state Supreme Court cases beginning in 1975 said municipalities must zone and create a “fair share” of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, which typically means a household would spend no more than a third of its monthly paycheck on housing expenses. The state created the council to approve towns’ affordable housing plans.

In March 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court said the council was “moribund” and non-functioning after the statewide agency failed for more than 15 years to adopt updated affordable housing quotas and rules for towns to follow, which stalled construction on affordable units for decades.

Instead, towns have negotiated in Superior Court settlements that lay out plans to build affordable housing with Fair Share Housing Center, which argues on behalf of low- and moderate-income households.

If towns don’t participate, they are at risk of builder’s remedy lawsuits, through which a developer can avoid the municipal approval process and build a project with as many market-rate units as it wants, as long as at least 20% of the units are affordable.

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According to Fair Share Housing Center’s analysis of multifamily building permits, as well as a state affordable housing dataset, news coverage, court documents and reports, the shift after 2015 sped up housing production in the 349 municipalities participating in the process.

Between 1980 and 2014, New Jersey produced nearly 50,000 deed-restricted affordable homes, or 1,469 units a year. Once towns began negotiating settlements with Fair Share, they built nearly 22,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2022, or 2,736 units a year.

That mixture of senior, special needs and family apartments built since 2015 could help an estimated 51,000 people. And what’s more, affordable units are often tucked into buildings with market-rate apartments, so the nonprofit calculates that all Mount Laurel-associated development created housing for 183,000 people since 2015.

“We have something special here in New Jersey, and as a result we’ve been able to plan for and build thousands of units of affordable housing despite some tremendous opposition in certain communities,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, a founder of the Latino Action Network and chair of the Fair Share Housing Center board.

Mayors and towns opposed to the current court process have argued that litigation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to pay for lawyers and experts and planners, and said the process is “inefficient, ineffective and costly” at a September legislative hearing considering the next round of housing obligations.

Blueprint to follow

The report, called “Dismantling Exclusionary Zoning: New Jersey’s Blueprint for Overcoming Segregation,” identifies five features of New Jersey’s system that other states could consider as a blueprint to tackle the nation's housing crisis:

  1. A baseline legal mandate that towns provide a fair share of affordable housing.

  2. A methodology to calculate what towns need to build, prioritizing areas near jobs and transportation and in historically exclusionary neighborhoods.

  3. Requiring homes to stay affordable in the long term, such as by using deed restrictions that last at least 30 years and other mechanisms that increase the overall supply of housing in communities.

  4. Strong enforcement and consequences if towns don’t build, such as builder’s remedy suits, or appointing special masters to act in place of local planning boards.

  5. Advocacy groups that keep a close eye on the progress of towns and hold towns accountable if they don't meet their obligations.

“This system recognizes that towns that have more jobs and less existing affordability in their housing stock — a result that reflects exclusionary zoning policies that allow for far more offices or stores than housing — should do more to create affordable homes,” the report's authors wrote.

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Such a process can also start to unravel centuries of racist policies that fostered segregation, the authors wrote, explaining the history of how policies evolved from explicit racial zoning laws, which separated white and Black neighborhoods, to redlining practices in which lenders and the Federal Housing Administration refused to guarantee mortgages in neighborhoods of color, and then to exclusionary zoning.

About 75% of residential land in major American cities is currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing, zones with high white populations, greater home values and higher income levels, according to a New York Times analysis.

"Despite the veneer of race-neutrality, exclusionary zoning is legalized segregation with direct ties to America’s history of slavery and brutal oppression," the report's authors wrote. "New Jersey has taken steps towards dismantling exclusionary zoning through the Mount Laurel Doctrine, one of the most significant and effective interventions to combat residential segregation in the nation."

'Why we do the work'

Interspersed through the report are vignettes about women who can afford their housing expenses after years of struggling, thanks to affordable housing.

They are women such as Wanda Vidal, 58, a single mother and grandmother who worked for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for 20 years without being able to make a down payment on a home. In 2022, she moved into her "dream home" through a Habitat for Humanity program.

Or Alana Baptiste, a 52-year-old single mother on dialysis who lost her home to foreclosure and was homeless until she received assistance from HomeFront New Jersey.

"Hearing directly from residents who live in affordable housing humanizes the work that we do, because we often talk about this work in units and we sometimes forget the people living in those units, and that's why we do the work," said Martina Manicastri, communications strategist with Fair Share Housing Center.

Manicastri said she heard repeated themes when she interviewed the women for the report.

"They had been working their whole lives and had not been able to get where they saw everybody else being, like buying a home, not because they're doing something wrong, but in many ways because the system is not made for them," Manicastri said. "Affordable housing gave them an opportunity to begin to have a savings account or find a place for their kids to go to school, or to feel safe in their neighborhoods."

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ doubled rate of affordable housing starts since 2015, report says