Don’t Pit Affordable Homes Against Environment

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Most environmental groups and advocates, including New Jersey Conservation Foundation, have supported affordable housing for low and moderate income residents for decades. But a bill rapidly making its way to the Governor’s desk pits affordable housing against the environment in a cynical effort to maximize private profits.

The truth is that intelligent planning provides for both affordable housing and environmental protection – and New Jerseyans deserve both.  If the bill gets to Governor Christie’s desk, he should veto it, recognizing the giant step backward it would mean for both affordable housing opportunities and our environment.

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Under the guise of reforming our affordable housing law, the New Jersey State Legislature chose to fling the door wide open for the worst kinds of sprawl.  The bill abolishes the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, claiming that municipalities instead will be permitted “to control planning for affordable housing within their boundaries.”

Nothing could be further from the truth!  With this bill, it will be private development interests, not municipalities, controlling housing and calling the shots.

This bill would grant developers legal leverage to force new housing developments everywhere – especially in suburban and rural communities.

Municipalities with less than 5,000 people per square mile, much of rural New Jersey, will be required to adopt zoning ordinances for residential development at gross densities of between 6 and 20 units per acre – density more akin to that found in our cities and towns. And only 15 to 20 percent of the units will be set aside for low and moderate income housing.  Thus, municipalities will be forced to accept higher density market-rate residential development, with a few affordable units thrown in. Builders have been pressuring towns for this opportunity for years, and this bill would give it to them.

The bill does allow municipalities to meet 50 percent of their affordable  housing obligation through a variety of other options,  including 100 percent affordable development  projects (perhaps done with a nonprofit developer), accessory apartments, purchase and subsidization of existing homes for rental or sale (buy downs), rehabilitation projects, and assisted living with low or moderate income units.

These options have far less environmental impact, and are better ways to achieve affordable housing.  Some municipalities might prefer to meet their entire obligation through these means, but this bill won’t allow it, since the other 50 percent must be met through the market-rate development projects.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill gives a powerful new hammer to private development interests: any development proposal with at least 10 percent affordable units would be deemed legally “inherently beneficial.”  This means these projects can trump environmental protections and other local ordinances. There is no doubt that developers will use this clause to invalidate local zoning and ordinances, and push through high density projects without regard to environmental protections.

In another move to take power away from municipalities, the bill defines “developable property” far too broadly.  Its definition of “developable property” includes stream corridors,  forests, groundwater recharge areas and other areas protected by local governments. The bill is a slap in the face to New Jersey’s environmental quality, and to the widely-held view that wise development and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand.

Please urge the Governor Christie to veto this bill by contacting him by phone at 1-609-292-6000, on the web at http://www.state.nj.us/governor/contact/ or by mail to Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 001, Trenton, NJ, 08625.

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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