A Victory for Affordable Housing in N.J.

“Governor Jon S. Corzine, welcome to our home,” read a banner in front of 20 fidgeting, mainly African-American, children, waiting for the Governor to arrive on a sweltering July day in southern New Jersey. New Jersey was about to make history again, by enacting into law what urban expert David Rusk called “the most important housing reform legislation enacted in the nation in the past two decades.”

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“Governor Jon S. Corzine, welcome to our home,” read a banner in front of 20 fidgeting, mainly African-American, children, waiting for the Governor to arrive on a sweltering July day in southern New Jersey. The Governor was coming to sign a sweeping affordable housing bill at a development named after Ethel R. Lawrence, the civil rights pioneer who filed the landmark Mount Laurel lawsuit. The lawsuit, decided in 1975, held that every town in New Jersey, wealthy enclaves included, had to provide for its fair share of affordable housing, and has become the nation’s most celebrated — and controversial — affordable-housing precedent. New Jersey was about to make history again, by enacting into law what urban expert David Rusk called “the most important housing reform legislation enacted in the nation in the past two decades.”

The bill that Gov. Corzine signed in front of a crowd of 400 pastors, developers, elected officials and affordable-housing advocates was sweeping indeed. The bill abolishes regional contribution agreements, a scheme long reviled by civil rights leaders and housing advocates, by which wealthy towns avoid having to build affordable housing by paying poor cities to rehabilitate housing there. The bill also establishes a requirement for affordable housing to include very-low-income families — families making less than $23,000 a year — in addition to the moderate-income families it has long served; creates a new state affordable housing trust fund expected to raise up to $160 million a year; and implements several other critical reforms.

I could go on about the details of the bill — which itself clocks in at 52 pages—but, having been involved in this process as an attorney at Fair Share Housing Center, the group founded out of the original lawsuit to make sure that the law was enforced, I will focus on the real long-term story here: the shifting politics of affordable housing in New Jersey.

For years, affordable housing was a pariah issue here as in most of the country. The basic dynamic was that civil rights lawyers, most notably the legendary Peter O’Connor who started and still runs my organization, would win big in the courts, and the Legislature and local officials would do everything they could do undermine each victory. We have to zone for affordable housing? We’ll zone for it in the middle of an industrial park. Wealthy towns have to build housing? We’ll make it so that they can pay off poor towns. The process climaxed five years ago in the ultra-cynical politics of the McGreevey administration. While McGreevey may be known best nationally for outing himself as the nation’s first openly gay governor, he’s equally well known here in New Jersey for Byzantine political moves that have left the state in a deep fiscal crisis.

Under the supervision of his housing commissioner Susan Bass Levin, McGreevey systematically attempted to gut the state’s affordable housing laws. First, his administration attempted to simply not release rules calculating each municipality’s affordable housing obligations. When courts ordered them to release the rules in 2004, the result was a naked attempt to leave the state’s most affluent towns with basically no obligation to build affordable housing. In a particularly bizarre chapter, the state attempted to retroactively reduce the affordable housing obligations for past years for many towns, leaving wealthy, growing towns with a supposed surplus of affordable housing.

But then something strange happened. A political coalition formed to oppose the rules, with strange bedfellows joining the expected opposition from housing advocates. Homebuilders opposed the rules because they endorsed many municipalities’ practice of trying to shut down construction entirely (home prices escalated in New Jersey in the late ’90s and early 2000s partly because of a severe shortage of new housing availability). Environmentalists opposed the rules because they meant that workers would have to live far from their jobs, generating increased vehicle miles and air pollution.

And a new faith-based organization, the New Jersey Regional Coalition, added the particularly powerful voice of ministers – especially African-American Baptist pastors and Catholic priests — who galvanized around the issue of wealthy towns paying out of their affordable housing obligations. The issue also drew the ire of then-Assembly Majority Leader, now Speaker, Joseph Roberts, who represents the City of Camden and gave a watershed 2004 speech at Princeton University calling for a ban on such transfers. Roberts became the key legislative leader to drive the new bill through.

Our organization and others’ legal challenge successfully invalidated the McGreevey administration’s rules as unconstitutional in early 2007, though we didn’t win on every issue. But the state’s political realignment resulted in a different reaction to that court victory. Instead of trying to rein in the courts, as the Legislature had done in the past, the Legislature decided to go further. The courts upheld transfers from wealthy towns as constitutional? The Legislature banned them. The courts said that there was no requirement to reach very-low-income households? The Legislature, under the leadership of new Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson-Coleman, said that there was such a requirement.

What happened that changed the political mix? A lot of it was dedicated organizing by groups like the Regional Coalition, which comes out of the same community organizing network, the Gamaliel Foundation, that Barack Obama worked for in Chicago. And a lot of it was that towns practicing exclusionary zoning were too successful. They started to keep out not just the poor, but also the middle-class, through draconian requirements such as 5-acre minimum lot sizes. And all of the sudden affordable housing programs in the state were about serving working people, not just the very poor.

Take, for example, a key supporter of the new legislation: the casino workers’ union, UNITE-HERE Local 54. A generation ago, casino workers could afford to live in suburbs near Atlantic City; now they cannot. This change, along with the foreclosure crisis’s impact on the middle class, produces the opportunity for new coalitions between people who have always needed affordable housing and people who suddenly find themselves shut out. As Doreen Braz, a resident of Ethel Lawrence Homes, said at the bill signing, “We have all had a time in our life where we’ve needed a helping hand” — a statement that rings true to a lot more people when it comes to housing nowadays than it might have 20 years ago.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this new shift was at the bill signing. While the Governor, Speaker, and several other political leaders addressed 400 people celebrating the new legislation, a small group of white elected officials from wealthy towns gathered across the street for a press conference. They didn’t like the state’s new affordable housing rules and were suing over them. This time, it would be the wealthy towns going to the courts, while the affordable housing advocates celebrated our political victory.

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Adam Gordon is the executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, based in New Jersey. He co-founded Next City in 2002.

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