Our Future Depends on Affordable Housing — New Jersey Has Opportunity to Lead The Way

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As housing prices have skyrocketed in recent years, the shortage of affordable homes is making life impossible for hard-working families, hurting both low-income families and the middle class.

In New Jersey, one in four families spends half or more of their income on their rent or mortgage — often forced to choose between paying for housing or nutritious food, reliable transportation, or health care needs. No one should have to make those choices.

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New Jersey law contains a strong framework — known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine — that requires municipalities to provide their fair share of affordable housing. Since it was established in 1975, the Mount Laurel Doctrine has helped to break down racial segregation and has promoted greater economic integration in the state.

We have seen the benefits of the Mount Laurel Doctrine firsthand. Habitat for Humanity affiliates work in every county of the state and have built hundreds of homes that were sold to qualified buyers, thanks to the donations and volunteer labor of many thousands of New Jerseyans and public and private grants. We know that, comparatively, families who live in affordable homes have better economic and health outcomes than those who were unable to obtain affordable housing.

What’s more, affordable housing does not just benefit the people who live in it — it benefits all of us. Shortages of affordable housing have detrimental effects on society — causing significant slowdown in overall economic growth and limiting labor mobility.

In New Jersey, the obligation to create affordable homes is recalculated every 10 years in cycles known as “rounds.” Those obligations are calculated by looking at the growth of low- and moderate-income households in the various regions of the state, producing an individualized requirement for affordable housing in each municipality. Towns are encouraged to engage in the process and create their own fair housing plans that realistically zone for their fair share of affordable housing.

As New Jersey prepares for the next round of Mount Laurel obligations in 2025 — when each municipality must develop an updated plan for how to provide additional affordable homes — it is more critical than ever for policymakers to safeguard and strengthen this framework.

In 2015, New Jersey took an important step forward when the state Supreme Court ruled that the judicial system would ensure municipalities are providing their fair share of affordable housing. That decision effectively eliminated the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), which had long been ineffective in overseeing compliance.

Since 2015, the rate of affordable housing production has nearly doubled, multifamily housing production has significantly increased, and neighborhoods have become more integrated. More than 20,000 new affordable homes have been created in New Jersey since 2015. Yet our state still faces an estimated shortage of over 230,000 affordable homes.

We’re encouraged by legislation passed by the New Jersey Assembly earlier this month that would set a course for the Mount Laurel Doctrine over the next decade. This forward-thinking bill would increase transparency, streamline the process for developing municipal affordable housing plans, and ban wealthy towns paying their way out of their affordable housing obligations.

It is significant that New Jersey is taking steps to invest in affordable housing. However, considering that our state is home to some of the most competitive for-sale and rental markets in the U.S., there is still much more that needs to be done.

Lori Leonard, CEO, Habitat for Humanity of South Central New Jersey
Liz DeCoursey, CEO, Morris Habitat for Humanity

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