S-1 hearing wrap-up, and our testimony

New Jersey’s progressive community – and some not so usual allies – slowed the S-1 juggernaut today. With about 40 speakers in opposition, and many more in the audience clapping in support, the bills many flaws became manifestly apparent. As one Blue Jersey commenter pointed out, anyone there could understand why Sen. Lesniak didn’t want to take testimony – S-1, quite simply, got torn apart from every angle.

It’s bad for South Jersey (as Asw. Riley pointed out to DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa, who avoided the question with a long discussion of the entire history of COAH); it’s bad for cities and first suburbs in North Jersey (as we pointed out in a spirited exchange with Asm. Green, who recognized that the bill would overly concentrate poverty in communities like Plainfield). And it’s bad for middle-class people like firemen and police – a point that Asm. Scalera’s questions focused heavily on.

It’s bad for builders and the economy – as many of the state’s big time builders (that’s the part about nontraditional allies) and the New Jersey Builders Association hammered home – not to mention Habitat for Humanity and the Housing and Community Development Network. It’s bad for the environment – as Dianne Brake of PlanSmart, Judy Remington of Coalition on Affordable Housing and the Environment, and Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club pointed out in extended testimony.

It would turn back the clock decades on civil rights, as the NAACP’s Kelly Francis and Mike McNeil pointed out in forceful testimony on the “Jim Crow” nature of the bill. And it would halt NJ’s progress in deinstitutionalizing people with special needs, as several groups working on supportive housing pointed out.

Oh, yeah, Steve Lonegan et al don’t like S-1 either which helps explain this morning’s rare sight of a Republican Assembly member, Michael Patrick Carroll, conducting a lengthy cross-examination of a member of Gov. Christie’s cabinet.

The only supporters of the bill were, well, not quite supporters – they all wanted amendments, in ways that seemed to contradict with each other. The non-residential developers, NAIOP, want changes. The Governor’s office wants changes. The League of Municipalities and New Jersey Conference of Mayors want changes. These changes do not, at least from what was discussed, sound like they overlap very much.

The Christie-Lesniak team still wants a bill passed by June 30 and are exerting tremendous pressure to do so. The rationales for the deadline are flimsy – a Lesniak quote in the Ledger mentioned the “fiscal year” (despite the lack of connection of this bill to the budget) and DCA Commissioner Grifa felt that things were close. But, as Asm. Green repeatedly said during the hearing, rushing the bill has many risks – of a court challenge or totally ineffective system.

Thanks so much to the Blue Jersey community – you have been great in your support on pushing the Legislature to reflect the will of its constituents. And thanks to Speaker Oliver, Majority Leader Cryan, Chairman Green, and Vice-Chair Jasey for slowing the process down.

But we’re not done yet –  the Governor and Sen. Lesniak are still trying to bully the Assembly into passing S-1. We need to keep the pressure up against the serious push we are seeing. Let me know at adamgordon@fairsharehousing.org if there are any members of the Assembly you can reach out to.

Our testimony, per several people’s request, is after the jump.

Good Morning Chairman Green, Vice Chair Jasey, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about reforms to the Fair Housing Act of 1985.  I am here this morning on behalf of Fair Share Housing Center, an organization founded in 1975 by several of the plaintiffs in the original Mount Laurel litigation.  Since its founding, the Center has been involved in representing the interests of lower-income families and others who need housing they can afford.

Although I have attended all five legislative hearings on S-1 and signed up to testify at every hearing, this is the first time I have been permitted to testify.  The problems with S-1 begin with the process by which it passed the Senate and extend all the way to the recently added provisions of the legislation that permit developers and municipalities to provide no new affordable units despite substantial housing growth by simply arranging $10,000 grants.  Organizations with longtime and unquestioned commitments to social justice, such as the Catholic Conference and the NAACP, have opposed S-1 because it would undermine the Mount Laurel doctrine and strengthen the hand of municipalities that have shut their doors to lower-income New Jerseyans.

But I am not really here to talk about S-1 because I do not believe it is worth spending further time and energy on that bill.  It is my hope that today’s hearing begins an honest and inclusive dialogue about a new housing policy that produces homes for people at all ranges of the income spectrum and that links housing with jobs and transit. New Jersey’s housing policy should provide opportunities for everyone, including people who don’t already live in the town where the housing is built and want to find better opportunities for their kids – or people who want to move back to the town where they grew up.  New Jersey’s housing policy should promote racial and economic integration in housing and should provide a good balance of housing for families of all incomes, including families earning around $25,000 per year which A-500 for the first time included and S-1 would take out, seniors, and people with special needs.  

As this committee takes a fresh look at New Jersey’s housing policies, there are several points worth highlighting.  

1. As a general rule, the municipalities that are less affordable should do more.   New Jersey is among the most racially and economically segregated states in the nation.  It is NOT like this everywhere else. Our housing policies should acknowledge that problem and work to break down damaging patterns that divide our state.  S-1 asked diverse municipalities such as Pennsauken and South Orange to do more than Far Hills and Evesham. It asked more of Cumberland County than Somerset County. That’s not a fair housing policy. We must have a policy that actually produces homes in places that are not affordable – and does not penalize places that are.

2. The laws you pass should comply with the Mount Laurel doctrine.  S1 only by its own terms attempts to comply with Mount Laurel I, a 1975 decision.  In 1983, however, the Court issued Mount Laurel II because Mount Laurel I wasn’t working.  Any legislation that ignores Mount Laurel II will be struck down very quickly by the judiciary.

3. Families are the primary beneficiaries of the Mount Laurel doctrine. It is important that municipalities have a diverse affordable housing stock, and legislation should not lose sight of the need to provide opportunities for families. The Courts as recently as 2007 rejected a policy that permitted half of all units to be satisfied with age-restricted housing.  Market studies show a 19-year glut of senior housing.  And rental housing is especially important for families who are looking for opportunities in the region.

4. There must be a check on municipalities.  We know from experience that most municipalities, if left to their own devices, will not develop housing that is affordable to close to half of New Jersey’s families and people with special needs.  Municipalities should not be permitted to use their zoning laws to restrict legitimate, environmentally sound land uses. This is the central premise of the Mount Laurel doctrine and it must form the backbone of any attempt to comply with our state constitution.  A municipality cannot build a mall and office parks without providing a place through zoning for the workers in those buildings to live. A municipality cannot require its firefighters and police to live in town and then make that economically impossible through zoning.

I am pleased to join you in a spirit of dialogue this morning and promise you that Fair Share Housing Center will use its 35 years of experience and its commitment to fair housing to assist you as you work on a better piece of legislation – one that is effective and constitutional.  We would much rather get it right the first time, as Chairman Green said in his statement yesterday.

Thank you.

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