Sprawl costs money. Big money to those of us who work; those of us who pay taxes; and those of us who breathe New Jersey’s air. That’s not exactly news, but the extent of the fiscal drain became apparent when a broad-based group called Smart Housing for Economic Prosperity Task Force (SHEP) commissioned a Bookings Institute study in 2006.

The study made it clear that one of the prime obstacles to Garden State economic health lay in its workforce’s inability to find affordable housing close to the workplace. After extensive study of other state’s models, the SHEP task force developed a plan that is now before the state Legislature as the Smart Housing Incentive Act.

To explain the points and the reasoning of the proposal, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce has invited Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future (www.njfuture.org) to speak at its Workforce Housing Seminar on Tuesday, February 10, at 8 a.m. at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Cost: $15. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Kasabach’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion including Jeremiah Ford of Ford3 Architects (www.ford3.com), which has an office on Nassau Street; Sandra Persichetti of Princeton Community Housing (www.princetoncommunityhousing.org); and Jay Biggins of the Hulfish Street law firm Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co. (www.lbsstrategies.com).

A child of New Jersey’s explosive urban and suburban development, Kasabach was born in Trenton and spent his youth in the expanding town of Hamilton. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in real estate and entrepreneurial management, earning his bachelor’s in economics in 1989. Upon graduation Kasabach spent two years in California, doing “what every young boy does in California.”

Kasabach slowly grew into the concept of urban planning as a career. He returned to his home state, and joined Isles, the Trenton-based non-profit designed to help New Jersey communities with programs from job training to home-finding.

After 11 years he became chief of housing for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. Last year Kasabach took over as executive director of New Jersey Future, a non-profit that advocates for state growth to include environmentally protected areas, maintenance of neighborhoods, and more diverse communities.

“We worked very hard to have the SHEP task force be representative,” says Kasabach. “If we were gong to bring affordable housing and work centers together, we needed everybody in on the project.”

In its formation, SHEP included a cross section of builders, environmentalists, planners, municipal officers, state legislators and officials, several Princeton University experts, and representatives from several community development non-profits.

Problems with sprawl. The endless sea of adjacent housing developments dotted by malls and linked by highways is not “natural” growth. It is hasty, thoughtless growth. People need houses? Plop down developments of 1,500 units quickly. They need goods? Call the mall folks to quickly haul in the chain stores.

Truly, this two-pronged development does answer basic needs for some. But it costs everybody more time on the roads and more automobile expenses. It pollutes the air. It blocks off all the other facets of community, from religious and education centers to clubs and not-for-profit organizations. And municipal services for such development-zoned areas has proved woefully inefficient and wasteful.

In New Jersey particularly, our demographics have been hurt by sprawl. This past decade, the state population has remained roughly stable. However, the makeup is changing dramatically. A substantial percentage are becoming retired and moving out, being replaced by an unprecedented influx of immigrants. This new, vital immigrant workforce simply cannot find dwelling and employment together. They don’t fit in the sprawl picture.

Housing Smart. Sponsored by Assembly majority leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15) and state Senator Dana Redd (D-5), the Smart Housing Incentive Act has passed the Assembly and now is being considered very favorably in the Senate. “The problem has been that until now, municipalities have not been providing builders with proper incentive to build wisely,” says Kasabach. “We feel this new Act will solve that issue.”

As the Smart Housing Inventive Act is proposed, municipalities that agreed to adopt new zoning with increased density and mixed use would receive a small planning fund from the state. Once they enlist the town’s support, and they find an acceptable location for the new development, plans are drawn up.

When the municipality produces the plans and establishes the appropriate zoning ordinances, they qualify for further aid, based on the mixed use and density. For example, if the old zoning called for 50 houses on a property and the new ordinance would set up 100, the municipality would qualify for the Smart Housing Act’s incentive of $1,000 per additional unit. That’s $50,000 to the town for the additional mixed housing.

The job is now bid out to the developer, who loves finally getting a job that is already pre-approved by the municipality. He avoids all the usual long delays of pushing the project past recalcitrant town council members. Upon completion, the town receives another $4,000 per additional unit — $200,000 more to the town for the additional 50 homes.

So why should the state fund municipal smart growth? Because there is one catch. The Act stipulates that 10 percent of these new houses must be low-income; another 10 percent must be moderate-income, and 10 more percent will be middle-income housing.

If adapted, qualifying towns will be happy as they collect great new state incentives and additional property tax revenues. Developers will flock to such contracts because they have an actual job to bid on in these tough times, and it can be achieved hassle-free, with township support. The environmentalist community smiles because outside lands get protected and less polluting auto use is involved. And, finally, the workers of New Jersey have the opportunity to search for a home and livelihood within reasonable proximity.

Doubtless, as with any legislation, substantial debate over the Smart Housing Incentive Act will take place. But it doesn’t take great deal of foresight to see a win-win bill coming from this proposal.

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