This is as close to ‘required reading’ as you’re going to see all day, I think – – promoted by Rosi Efthim
He wouldn’t own up to it in his Thursday press conference on housing policy. But there it was in the details that, in keeping with Christie tradition, were not even available until a few hours after the announcement. Gov. Christie wants to bring Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs) – the much-hated payments by wealthy towns to poor cities to take their affordable housing obligations that Speaker Joe Roberts and a diverse range of groups fought for four years to ban – back. In fact, Gov. Christie wants to increase their use to the point that wealthy towns could get out of their entire housing obligation.
In a landmark 2004 speech, then-Majority Leader Roberts called RCAs “repulsive,” “exploitative,” and “odious.” He later began using the term “blood money” to describe how wealthy towns could pay to keep New Jersey racially and economically segregated (we are the most economically segregated, and fifth most racially segregated, state in America). Others compared them to the Civil War practice of wealthy people paying others to stand in for them in the war.
Roberts spent the next four years working with groups like the Housing and Community Development Network and the New Jersey Regional Coalition and leaders like Bishop Joseph Galante of the Camden Diocese to build strong alliances, resulting in a powerful coalition. By 2008, his allies included the building trades, Fair Share Housing Center, NAACP, New Jersey Catholic Conference and many other faith based groups, New Jersey Future, New Jersey Regional Coalition, PlanSmart NJ, Sierra Club and other environmental groups, plus practically all major New Jersey business community groups including the Builders Association, NAIOP, and Building and Industry Association. These groups supported A500, Roberts’ historic bill that did away with RCAs and made many other changes to New Jersey’s housing policy. David Rusk, a national urban expert who worked closely with the New Jersey Regional Coalition on the bill, called the legislation the most significant state housing policy in the country in several decades.
Gov. Corzine signed A500 in July 2008 in front of 500 people at a historic location: Ethel R. Lawrence Homes, which resulted from the original lawsuit against Mount Laurel Township. Among many other speakers, Doreen Braz, who lives there, talked about the impact on her family from having the opportunity to move to Mount Laurel instead of being forced to stay in one of the communities where RCAs went. Speaker Roberts, in a recent forum at Rider University, named the elimination of RCAs as one of his three biggest legislative accomplishments.
With the ink barely dry on those changes, now Gov. Christie wants to bring RCAs back – and more than that, he wants to make them basically the entirety of the state’s housing policy. The Governor at his press conference claimed he was proposing a 10% set-aside for affordable housing in new development, but the fine print allows RCAs as an alternative that developers would make money by choosing. The proposal says that developers can pay a 2.5% fee instead of the 10% set aside, and further states that “[m]unicipalities may use funds in their affordable housing trust funds to underwrite rehabilitation projects in other municipalities which have significant rehabilitation needs but limited resources.” In other words, 100% of a municipality’s obligation can be moved out of town through an RCA – while in the past only 50% could, and now, thanks to the efforts of Speaker Roberts and many others, none can.
From a financial standpoint, paying the fee is a no-brainer for the builders. Developers will make far more money by paying the fee instead of developing affordable housing on-site. And many of the towns where there is the most job growth and need for more homes will send that money elsewhere, as the long and sorry history of RCAs, banned by the Legislature just two years ago, shows. Indeed, high job growth municipalities like Cranbury, Wayne, and Evesham long used RCAs to keep out the people who work in their towns, people with special needs, and seniors, in the chase for ratables and at the expense of a sensible land use policy. Allowing those municipalities to use RCAs for all of their obligation would make matters even worse.
Governor Christie has demanded action on his plan by June 30, hoping to rush the plan through (for which there is not even a proposed bill at this point). Sen. Lesniak and Sen. Bateman similarly want to bring back RCAs, through a similar “payment in lieu” process in their pending S-1 bill. The question is whether the Democratic leadership will ignore what Speaker Roberts fought so hard for for so many years, with so many behind him, and instead promote a plan that increases our state’s racial and economic segregation without producing homes near jobs and transit.