Setting new standards for designing affordable housing in N.J.

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    Steve Schoch has been designing affordable housing in New Jersey for three decades.
    Steve Schoch has been designing affordable housing in New Jersey for three decades. - (AARON HOUSTON)

    Steve Schoch has seen it before, especially in recent years.

    A new, well-designed affordable-housing complex opens for leasing. Would-be renters show up and inquire, only to be turned away because they make too much money.

    That usually doesn’t go over well, Schoch said — some people even get downright offended. But he said it just speaks to the fact that these days, it can be difficult to tell the difference between low- and moderate-income housing and market-rate units.

    “It looks as good, if not better than the stuff in the marketplace because we can’t cut certain corners,” said Schoch, a Collingswood-based architect with Kitchen & Associates, who has been designing affordable housing in New Jersey for three decades. He added: “People tend to think affordable housing is cheap. It’s far from it. It’s some of the highest-quality residential construction anywhere in the state.”

    The reason: affordable-housing developers rely on a mix of government subsidies, tax credits and other public resources that come with stricter requirements for construction, sustainability and livability, he said. So “what we’ve done a very good job of at this point is dismantling that whole argument about the physical appearance of the housing.”

    What remains, he said, is the perception that has long stalled such projects at the local level.

    “I’ve seen a lot — I’m smart enough to know that it’s really not a sticks and bricks issue,” Schoch said. “You can show them a beautiful building, you can show them one they’d be proud to live next door to; it’s the perception of who’s going to live there that they’re afraid of.

    “There’s this mindset about who the people are that is completely disconnected from the design and the physical appearance of the housing,” he said.

    Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said he has “found just the opposite (and) ... quite frankly, a major change in perception over what affordable housing is and the obligation that municipalities have to fulfill that.” That change has taken place in recent years with a lack of direction from state officials and the Council on Affordable Housing, the embattled agency that sets affordable-housing requirements for local governments.

    RELATED: New COAH rules set stage for new battle: Developers, advocates leery of new guidelines

    “There is a willingness and, quite frankly, a desire by local officials to address the affordable housing with or without government,” Dressel said. “And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen developments take off because local officials are pushing the envelope or trying to address those housing needs that exist in their communities.”

    Schoch and developers have voiced equal frustration about the lack of certainty from Trenton. The most recent COAH guidelines — revised under orders from the Supreme Court — are slated for a public hearing Wednesday, though many are skeptical that the debate will end there.

    Still, Schoch also notes that there are municipalities in New Jersey that are proactive when it comes to working with developers to build affordable and special-needs housing, even with the uncertainty over statewide requirements. In those towns, each new project is setting a new tone from a design standpoint, he said.

    “The whole notion of affordable housing should be that you can’t go and point to where the poor people live, and you can’t point to where the handicapped people live,” Schoch said. “And if you look at any of the newer projects that are out there, I think that’s happening. I think the more the old public housing is being torn down and the more new development comes in, I think … certainly the quality is there.”

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    Joshua Burd

    Joshua Burd

    Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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