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Industry Insights

N.J. affirming fair housing laws strengthens economic competitiveness

By ,
John E. Harmon Sr. founder, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
John E. Harmon Sr. founder, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. - ()

One of the keys to strengthening the competitiveness of our state is by making New Jersey more affordable for everyone who currently resides and has a desire to live here. Access and inclusion are the cornerstones to prosperity and healthy communities.

That’s why the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision affirming our fair housing laws wasn’t just a victory for civil rights, it was also a step toward ensuring our state’s economic competitiveness.

While New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in the country, it is also one of the most expensive and one of the most segregated.

Addressing New Jersey’s housing affordability crisis is key to ensuring smaller, minority-owned businesses the workforce they need to compete and to grow.

Housing prices in many of New Jersey’s fastest-growing suburban regions are so high that they price out potential employees.

This phenomenon affects blue-collar and service-sector workers, many of whom face prohibitively long commutes from New Jersey cities to suburban job markets thanks to a dearth of workforce housing.

It is also increasingly impacting companies’ ability to recruit younger skilled workers. Recent college graduates are stymied by New Jersey’s severe rental housing shortage, and young families looking for their first starter home can’t find anything in their price ranges.

These problems are compounded for small businesses and startups  the engines of our state’s economy. New Jersey’s housing policies hit minority-owned businesses particularly hard.

Exclusionary zoning and development policies have contributed to segregation in New Jersey. These residential segregation patterns make it more difficult for black business owners to establish a foothold in suburban communities, where they can tap wealthier customer bases and more easily access capital to grow and expand.

These concerns are why the African American Chamber of Commerce has joined with the state’s other leading business organizations, including the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, to launch a new Opportunity New Jersey initiative to make our state more competitive. A key plank of our platform is the development of new workforce housing.

New Jersey’s Constitution provides tools to tackle this problem. Under our state’s fair housing laws, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, towns have an obligation to work with developers to address the acute need for housing for working families.

Although our housing laws were hamstrung for 16 years thanks to gridlock in Trenton, the New Jersey Supreme Court in January issued a landmark ruling that promises to break through the logjam and kick off the construction of tens of thousands of new homes across the state to address this shortage.

The court, in a unanimous decision, rejected an argument advanced by some towns that they shouldn’t be responsible for any of the housing need that accumulated during this 16-year gap period, when the state wasn’t enforcing the law.

The ruling comes as a growing consensus forms among suburban communities across New Jersey that they can and should meet their fair housing obligations.

More than 90 towns have reached settlements with advocates and developers to meet obligations of more than 30,000 homes.

Developers are already gearing up to build thousands of homes in thriving suburban communities across New Jersey. Shovels are already in the ground for some projects.

These projects will provide jobs and stimulate an economy still recovering from the recession, a wave of housing foreclosures and the downward spiral of Atlantic City’s gaming industry.

And they will also provide the workforce housing that is key to making our state friendly for small and minority-owned businesses by allowing us to attract a quality workforce.

The next chapter in the struggle over affordable housing got underway in another Trenton courtroom earlier this month.

Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson is overseeing a two-month trial that will establish housing obligations for Mercer County.

This trial includes some of the wealthiest towns in the state  including West Windsor and Princeton  and will have an impact on communities far from Central Jersey.

Some of these towns are relying on a housing study by Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions that artificially reduces New Jersey’s housing needs by arguing that half-million dollar beachfront homes are affordable to restaurant waitresses and supermarket cashiers. Retired Judge Douglas K. Wolfson in Middlesex County rejected these specious arguments in a trial over South Brunswick’s fair housing obligations last summer.

As the courts continue to wrestle with this issue in these two cases, they must continue to reject arguments from a few holdout towns that would deepen New Jersey’s affordability crisis and prevent the construction of tens of thousands of units of workforce housing and starter homes that our state needs to improve our business climate.

John E. Harmon Sr. is founder, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

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