New Jersey Skirts Affordable Housing Law

New Jersey requires towns to build affordable housing. But for decades, the wealthiest suburban towns were paying poorer urban areas to build their affordable housing units for them. Now some lawmakers are trying to force municipalities to build affordable housing units.

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No matter if you rent or own, the state of New Jersey is one of the most expensive places in this country to live. Every town in the Garden State is supposed to build affordable housing for its residents, but not all do. Instead, some of the state's wealthiest areas pay poor cities to take on their affordable housing obligations.

This arrangement is legal, but some lawmakers want to change that, as Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Hopewell Township - population 18,000 - is where the suburbs of Trenton end and the rolling hills of western New Jersey begin. When officials in this bucolic town say they don't have a sewerage system, you get the sense they don't really want one either.

Mr. DAVID SANDAHL (Deputy Mayor, Hopewell Township): If you want water here, you drill a well. If you want sewerage service, you have a septic system.

ROSE: Deputy Mayor David Sandahl says Hopewell would like to build affordable housing, but the costs would be enormous. And Sandahl says any new development would create more sprawl, which is a four-letter word to state planners.

Mr. SANDAHL: Nobody would argue with the social mission in providing affordable housing. The question is how to get it done. And then you get the state of environmental protection saying basically - stop sprawl, don't spread the housing all over the place, don't build new infrastructure, concentrate.

ROSE: So, for years, Hopewell Township has done what a lot of New Jersey towns do: it paid the nearest city - in this case, Trenton - to build affordable housing instead. The money comes from fees paid by developers. Over the years, suburban towns have sent more than $200 million to urban areas through so-called Regional Contribution Agreements or RCAs.

General Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts of Kempton says that's missing the point of the state's affordable housing law.

Mr. JOSEPH ROBERTS (Democrat; Assembly Speaker, New Jersey General Assembly): The suburban town isn't shouldering its fair share. It isn't creating a kind of diversity that's necessary for any vibrant community. And then you're also ending up with the concentration of poverty in urban areas in New Jersey.

Mayor DOUG PALMER (Trenton, New Jersey): You know, if you put the equation like that, obviously we'd say yes, it is. But it's not that simple.

ROSE: That's Doug Palmer, the mayor of Trenton, one of the poorest cities in the state. He says Trenton has gotten millions of dollars from Hopewell and other towns, and has used those dollars to redevelop entire neighborhoods, including one called Battle Monument.

Mayor PALMER: It was seedy buildings that were boarded up on the lot where the houses are. It was one little restaurant - soul food restaurant. It was a city garage and the rest of it was just open land.

ROSE: Today, many of those empty lots are occupied by low and mixed income housing.

Ms. LORETA WASHINGTON(ph): I've been here seven years. I love my house.

ROSE: Loreta Washington and her husband John own this two-story brick row house.

Mr. JOHN WASHINGTON: Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room and a living room and a kitchen. The grand kids can come over and you got to have a place to stay at.

ROSE: Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer says the city would have had a hard time finding the money to do this on its own.

Mayor PALMER: I'm for getting rid of RCAs although they were a tremendous help for us in Trenton. But we need a stable, consistent pot of money so that we can utilize moneys like we have RCAs, and build housing for working-class people in the city of Trenton, and provide homeownership opportunities.

ROSE: Even Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, who is trying to get RCAs, concedes the state has to find a way of replacing them.

Assembly Speaker ROBERTS: The mayors who say, I'm open to eliminating RCAs, but show me the money, they're making a very clear point. So we really and truly need to put our money where mouth is.

ROSE: Roberts wants a total overhaul of affordable housing in New Jersey. He's planning to schedule the come-up for debate in the General Assembly early this year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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