A March state-level Supreme Court ruling requires many municipalities to build hundreds of apartments. In some towns, opposition is getting nasty.
HOWELL, N.J.—The comments started online shortly after this middle-class Republican stronghold in central New Jersey filed a plan to rezone a wooded area to enable the construction of 72 affordable housing units.
There were the usual range of complaints: that the affordable housing would create more traffic, put additional stress on its aging infrastructure, and bring an undesirable element to town.
But, in this case, that undesirable element wasn’t the usual target of affordable-housing opponents: “We do not need this ... This means we are going to have more Jewish families milking the system,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page of Howell Happenings NJ.
“I moved to Howell 15 years ago to get away from garbage. Now the garbage is getting dumped on top of me,” another man wrote. This comment received four likes on the Howell Happenings NJ Facebook page.
There were dozens of others, from Howell residents fearing that a community of Hasidic Jews living in nearby Lakewood, New Jersey, would “take over” Howell, that the new affordable housing units would drag down property values and deplete the town’s coffers.
“Time to sell and get the heck out of here!” another woman wrote.
Affluent, mostly white communities often oppose affordable housing because their residents fear the changes that they believe an influx of black, Latino, or lower-income white residents would bring. There’s also a fairness argument—homeowners had to scrimp and save to buy in that area, they say, and now poor people just get to move there on the cheap? The complaint that affordable housing will bring Jews to a neighborhood is far less common, but in the same vein as these other, more typical, arguments. A vocal group of Howell residents wanted their town to stay just as it was, and they targeted the group that they believed threatened that.
Mayor William Gotto, a Republican, saw the Facebook comments and responded with an open letter to the town, cautioning residents against believing everything they read on social media, and encouraging them to attend council and zoning-board meetings to get the facts. The facts were that because of a March New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, most towns in the state, including Howell, are on the hook to build hundreds of units of affordable housing or face costly lawsuits. That put Gotto in a tough position—listen to his constituents and try to block the housing, or listen to the law.
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In 1983, after more than a decade of legal battles, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision in a case that is sometimes called the most significant civil-rights case in the nation since Brown v. Board of Education. In the Mount Laurelcase, the court ruled that every town in New Jersey has to provide its “fair share” of housing for low- and moderate-income people. Municipalities that didn’t follow this ruling would face lawsuits. The New Jersey legislature codified this into law in 1985, passing the Fair Housing Act. The law created the Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, whose job it was to release rules every 10 years or so laying out the requirements for each town to build a certain number of affordable units. COAH approved towns’ plans to build affordable housing; if towns didn’t file such plans, or their plans were not approved, they faced the specter of lawsuits from builders, which they usually lost.
COAH got through two rounds of “rules,” as they’re called, in 1986 and 1994, which together required more than 16,000 units of affordable housing to be built statewide.
Then, COAH, bowing to pressure from municipalities who disagreed with how much affordable housing they were being required to build, stopped issuing rules. Much New Jersey politicking ensued, including numerous court cases, missed deadlines, and political disputes. In 2011, shortly after taking office, Governor Chris Christie abolished COAH, a move that the state Supreme Court declared in 2013 to be illegal. After that, the Christie administration repeatedly ignored court orders to establish a new set of COAH guidelines, and in March of 2015, the state Supreme Court, frustrated with the lack of action, ruled that the lower courts would take over the regulation of affordable housing in New Jersey.
It was a blow for the governor, and a win for affordable housing activists, who had long said that COAH wasn’t working. In essence, the change meant that each town needed to submit to the courts a plan for affordable housing, committing to building a certain number of units. Towns are now submitting those plans, asking planners to estimate the need for affordable housing and outlining what the town will do to meet its obligations. Even that is a conflicted process. Because the debates over COAH have lasted so long, many towns are far behind in the process of building affordable housing, and in providing their “fair share,” as the 1985 law requires. Fair Share Housing, a non-profit dedicated to enforcing the Mount Laurel rulings, estimates that multiple towns, including Howell and Montclair, should have 1,000 affordable housing units. (Though some planners may argue some towns need more than that, the courts set the upper limit at 1,000.) Howell says its obligation is 680 units.
“It’s kind of chaos right now,” said Matthew Reilly, the president and CEO of MEND, a nonprofit that started as a coalition of churches in Moorestown and now works with communities to build affordable housing in the state.
There’s an irony in this: New Jersey has been something of a model for other places looking to pass laws and create inclusionary zoning standards. Since 1985, more than 65,000 units of housing have been built for working families and low-income people, said Anthony Campisi, a Fair Share Housing spokesman. But in the last 15 years, the state’s leadership on this issue has deteriorated. There are thousands of low-income families and people of color looking for housing in New Jersey, living with family members or on the streets in the meantime, Campisi said. The waiting list for supportive housing, which is for people with mental or physical disabilities, is 8,000 people. The state may have been forward-thinking in 1985, but it’s been tough to bring that vision into reality.
Moorestown, a suburb of Philadelphia, is facing a lawsuit from the Fair Share Housing Center, after the town said it lacked enough vacant land to build more than 1,000 units of affordable housing. A developer that wants to turn a vacant commercial building in Upper Saddle River into affordable housing is suing the town over its refusal to rezone the area; an attorney for the town said officialswanted to preserve the Upper Saddle River’s “unique character.” Even Montclair, a liberal enclave for one-time Brooklynites, is facing opposition over a plan that will create affordable housing as part of a redevelopment plan.
“Many towns have simply done nothing,” Campisi said. “Part of it has to do with fear: fear of people who are different from them, fear of people of color moving into their communities, fear of development.”
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Despite residents’ protests to the contrary, the construction of affordable housing usually does not change the tenor of a town or flood its schools with children. In Mount Laurel, which was required to build an affordable housing development after the state Supreme Court case that inspired the Fair Housing Law, Doug Massey, a Princeton professor who has studied affordable housing, found no negative effects on the town on a whole. In his book, Climbing Mount Laurel, Massey writes that the construction of the Ethel Lawrence Homes project had no negative effect on crime rates, property values, or taxes, and that the homes positively transformed the lives of the residents who lived there. Most neighbors had little contact with residents of the Ethel Lawrence Homes and some didn’t even know the project existed.
“Despite all of the sturm and drang leading up to the project’s opening in 2001, after the dust settled in the ensuing years, reactions from immediate neighbors were surprisingly muted,” Massey wrote.
Conifer Realty builds and manages affordable and market-rate buildings in New Jersey and other states, including Pennsylvania and New York. New Jersey towns often oppose their developments when they’re initially announced, said Charles Lewis, a senior vice president at Conifer. Sometimes, the town leadership will support the construction until residents get wind of it and protest, and then the town will back down.
“There’s a lot of prejudice, and a lot of it is racial, and a lot of it assumes affordable means low-income,” Lewis said.
But after construction, the developments usually don’t create problems. In one town where Conifer had to fight to build an affordable development, Lewis recently received a call from the school district, which was surprised that enrollment had not increased after the development was completed—much of the rhetoric about the development beforehand had been about how it would overload schools.