Here’s an age-old dilemma: How do you get more affordable housing in decent areas without any work around, and how do you grow jobs in an area when no one can afford to live near their employers?
If you really know the answer, shout it out, New Jersey is waiting. And at some point it’s going to have to settle its affordable and fair housing problems in a way that actually produces affordable and fair housing. The trouble is, things have been tied up in red tape since 1999 — and the frustrating thing is, that just a few years before then, the system actually worked.
David Kinsey, partner in the Princeton-based planning consulting firm of Kinsey & Hand, and visiting lecturer at Princeton University, has spent about 40 years working on ideas that are supposed to steer clear of exclusionary zoning. And this long career has given him the wisdom to know two things: he doesn’t have a crystal ball, and the system is broken.
Kinsey will participate in PlanSmart NJ’s policy briefing on affordable housing on Friday, October 17, at 8:30 a.m. at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton. Other speakers include Rachel Bratt of Tufts University; Philip Caton of Clarke Caton Hintz; Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress; Adam Gordon of Fair Share Housing; Henry Kent-Smith of Fox Rothschild; Mayor Liz Lempert of Princeton; Chris Foglio Palmer of Community Investment Strategies; and Dave Fisher of K. Hovnanian. Cost: $65. Visit www.plansmartnj.org.
Kinsey, whose father was a stockbroker and calligrapher and whose mother taught French, received his bachelors in government and architecture from Dartmouth in 1969 and his master’s of public affairs and urban planning from Princeton in 1971. He later received his doctorate in public and international affairs in 1975, also from Princeton. In 1979 he became the director of the Division of Coastal Resources at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, where he designed and implemented the New Jersey coastal management program and directed preparation of the first New Jersey Shore Protection Master Plan. In 1985 he founded Kinsey & Hand, a planning consultancy based on Aiken Avenue. He has been a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School since 1998.
New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis stems from the famous Mount Laurel decision of 1975, which dictated that every municipality in New Jersey must provide some affordable housing. Affordable housing, as defined by HUD, is housing occupied by a family paying less than 30 percent of its household income toward that housing. A family that pays more than 30 percent of its income towards housing is considered cost-burdened.
The 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling was huge, but as Kinsey points out, generated more lawsuits and paperwork than affordable houses. Mount Laurel II, in 1983, resolved a lot of the generalities of the 1975 decision and opened the door for real development of affordable housing. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Kinsey says, things worked, and New Jersey built more affordable homes per capita than any other state.
Then politics and lawsuits got in the way. By 1999 progress on affordable housing ground to a halt, and the state Council On Affordable housing (COAH) has been stymied since. Part of it is COAH’s own doing — in an effort to end gridlock at the legislative level, COAH has tried to do its own thing. Unfortunately for the council, the state Supreme Court found its actions unconstitutional.
On the other side of the fight, Governor Chris Christie has made no secret of his wish that COAH go away, and even tried to dismantle the council. The state Supreme Court found the governor’s actions unconstitutional as well — seems only an action by the Legislature can unseat COAH.
So here we are, waiting for COAH to reveal, according to a state mandate, its latest proposal on how to compel municipalities to provide fair and affordable housing without forcing individual municipalities to comply with rules that will tread on their sovereignty. That report is due out in November.
What does Kinsey expect to be on it? “It could be anything,” he says. COAH could introduce a plan that is fine as is, or it could introduce one that the courts will say needs amendments, or it could release one that the courts deem worthy of little more than puppy training material.
In other words, he has no idea. No crystal ball, remember? And Kinsey has been in the game long enough to know that making predictions about where things like major land use legislation will go is a fool’s practice.
What Kinsey does know are some rather sobering facts. Where New Jersey once led the nation in affordable housing, the state now sees 42 percent of its homes cost burdened. And if you zero in on low and moderate-income families, that figure jumps to a whopping 82 percent of these homes considered cost burdened.
Families at every level, Kinsey says, are struggling to stay afloat in New Jersey. And as more families dump their homes here, the more it creates a twofold issue. On the one hand, New Jersey is becoming affordable only to the wealthy. On the other hand, money is running to Pennsylvania, where families can get a little breathing room on the house, but now must contend with longer commutes, higher gas bills, and polluting the environment with long drives to and from work. For hundreds of thousands of homes in New Jersey (there are 3.1 million households on record), the reality of what to do to afford living here is a serious concern.
One other thing: The number of affordable units constructed per year has dropped two-thirds since 1986. Back then developers built about 10,000 units a year. By 2013 that number was around 3,000.
For Kinsey, there are two ways to contend with the problem. One is a limited approach, the other a comprehensive approach. The comprehensive approach takes into account every avenue of the dilemma and every type of affordable housing unit — new units, rehabbed units, and special needs units that aid population subgroups like the elderly or the physically or mentally handicapped. A limited approach would, Kinsey says, focus on a few groups or one type of housing and end up not solving anything.
Five keys. Any legislation that solves the problem of affordable housing in New Jersey must, Kinsey says, incorporate five keys: fairness, transparency, enforceability, simplicity, and effectiveness. He’s aware that this is a rather idealistic list, but if true progress is to be made here, these are the areas to focus on.
Fairness, oddly enough, has been the root of the sticking point. For one thing, what’s fair, and who’s it fair to? Moreover, though, the density and complexity of affordable housing laws in New Jersey happened because the law was trying to be as fair as possible. But the more it tried to clarify, the muddier the water got. After all, how does one system treat fairly 566 distinct municipalities, some of which are wealthy and sound (like Saddle River) and others of which are so poor and troubled, they lost their police department because the force was utterly ineffective (like Camden).
As for enforceability, one of the only reasons anything seems to be happening at all, Kinsey says, is fear of litigation. Towns are afraid to get sued, so they try to meet COAH guidelines and at the same time be fair to builders. This is where compromises, such as what counts as an affordable unit (a home, an apartment, a bedroom?) come into play.
However it plays out, it’s a mess now that could and should, Kinsey says, have a working conclusion. Somewhere in the morass, he’s hopeful. “Change takes place in sometimes surprising ways,” he says. “But my crystal ball is fuzzy at the moment.”