S1, the so-called affordable housing bill that passed in the Senate on June 10 and is now under review in the Assembly, rashly throws out the Mount Laurel Doctrine that made New Jersey’s affordable housing program a model for the rest of the country. It will lead to lawsuits, not housing.
First, it ignores the Court’s 1975 Mount Laurel decision, which was about zoning. It said that because zoning is a police power, local officials can only apply it to support the general welfare. Like eminent domain, zoning is something the public has an interest in. We don’t want local officials doing anything they want with it. S1 takes local officials off the hook for equitable zoning.
Second, it ignores the Court’s 1983 Mount Laurel II decision, which said that sound state planning was required to make sure that local planners will protect natural resources as well as provide equitable zoning. This decision led the Legislature to set up both COAH and the State Planning Commission; the first to determine the regional need, the second to determine where new growth should go.
S1 ignores the fact that COAH and the State Planning Commission were not allowed to function effectively for the last eight years. S1 ignores how well they had worked prior to the last two administrations and dismantles COAH and removes any role for state or regional planning.
There is no time to continue fighting over housing and planning programs. We need housing now and a great deal more. New Jersey faces severe economic, fiscal, and social challenges, with trends in a downward spiral. To complicate things, New Jersey faces build-out in the near future — all its land will be either developed or preserved. We need a plan of action and we need it now.
We need to re-concentrate jobs and add market rate units to cities and transit areas. We need to retrofit suburban employment centers to become vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income destinations. We need greater opportunities for racial and economic integration. And we can all use a better environment and more government efficiency. Integrated planning and housing programs can do it all.
Cookie-cutter solutions, using paltry set-asides in sprawl development, have no place on a landscape as complex as New Jersey’s. We need the whole system working to fix our problems. Then we can add state incentives and developer impact fees, when the economy supports them again, to get even better results.
We must decide what we want: How much growth? Where? To do what?
Sound answers to these questions can only be produced by strategic and integrated land use planning at the state and regional levels, integrated with transformative targets for jobs, housing, transit use, reversing patterns of segregation and concentrated poverty, and mitigating climate change.
Clear answers can be used to hold decision-makers accountable for reversing the downward trajectory of trends and putting New Jersey on track to attain a better future for all. Here is how it can be done:
Step 1: Decide how much growth is needed. There is plenty of data to show us areas with challenges and opportunities. Because of New Jersey’s complex landscape, different types and amounts of growth will be suitable in different places. The “how much” will be related to “what” New Jersey needs to achieve to solve its problems and produce a better quality of life in the future for all.
Step 2: Decide where growth should go. The “where” will be related to existing conditions, as well as the “what” we need to do: optimize transit use, protect water and critical habitats, and increase racial and economic integration.
Step 3: Decide specifically what growth should do. In order to drive change and accountability for results, we need clear targets for how many jobs and houses, what kind are needed, where to reduce auto travel by how much, to improve water resources by how much, and to improve racial and economic integration by how much. Without transformative targets, we will continue fiddling with the same programs and regulations that caused the problems we have.
Step 4: Decide who will do what to implement the plan. In order to get the job done, we need assignments. Counties should be empowered to convene a Regional Action Plan (RAP) process (see PlanSmart NJ technical services page on our website for a description of RAPs) with state and local officials to result in a compact agreement on the actions all parties (state, regional, county, local) will take to meet the agreed targets. The compact becomes the basis for implementation, monitoring, and accountability.
The results? A single vision of the future of New Jersey that reflects different conditions in different places and will serve to coordinate the implementation actions of many separate agencies and decision-makers in their policies, regulations, and incentive and investment programs. This, in turn, will lead to actions applied locally that are appropriate to the place and within the context of state and regional policy.
It should be done. It can be done. It must be done.
Dianne Brake is president of PlanSmart NJ. Founded in 1968, PlanSmart NJ is a Trenton-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances quality of life issues through land use planning and regional cooperation. It aims to renew the landscape so that future communities will have a sustainable economy and environment, based on strategic approaches for resource efficiency and social equity. E-mail her at email@example.com, or visit www.plansmartnj.org