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Coah: A Contradiction Of Ideals And Practice

For many people, owning a home is the great American dream, but in New Jersey, thanks to over-zealous and impractical Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) regulations, that dream quickly becomes a nightmare for first-time homebuyers seeking to find affordable housing in the Garden State.

While the main goal of COAH –affordable housing for all, irrespective of annual income – remains laudable, COAH’s mandates have for more than 20 years stalled development, centralized poverty in many of our aging urban centers, and contributed to higher costs of living and declining quality of life in New Jersey.

COAH can be redeemed, but not by piling new rules and regulations on old, failed policies.

The Council was originally established to fix problems created by the Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel affordable housing decisions. Those rulings mandated municipalities provide homes for low- and moderate-income New Jerseyans. They offered a judicial remedy that let builders side-step local zoning to do so. Within months of the court decisions, many municipal officials found zoning decisions taken entirely out of their hands, as builders raced to put up affordable housing units on any open tract of land they could find in the State.

To create a more rational Statewide affordable housing model, former Senators Wynona Lipman and John Lynch sponsored the Fair Housing Act of 1985, which established the Council on Affordable Housing. The law effectively ended the tyranny of the “builder’s remedy,” which had allowed builders to put up as many as four market-rate homes for each affordable unit they built. However, since its inception in 1985, COAH has contributed more to making the State unaffordable than it has to providing access to home ownership for working-class families.

COAH is the classic governmental regulatory nightmare – created with the best of intentions, the council has become nothing more than a zoning bully, forcing municipalities to comply or face rampant overdevelopment under the umbrella of the dreaded “builder’s remedy.” If the promise of affordable housing is to be realized in the Garden State, we need to revamp COAH, with an understanding of the limitations New Jersey faces as the most densely-populated state in the nation, and with fairness to all parties.

New Jersey needs economic development. We need to encourage businesses and corporations to locate here, to create high-paying jobs for our residents and continued ratables for municipalities. Affordable housing means nothing if potential homeowners can’t earn a paycheck to buy the homes.

We must allow for commercial development as well as residential development. If that means scaling back the number of affordable housing units that can be built in municipalities, that’s a sacrifice we must make. We need to achieve meaningful balance between business development, which will create and maintain jobs, and home development, which will ensure adequate shelter for the State’s workforce.

In Governor Corzine’s State of the State address, he recognized economic development is important now more than ever, as New Jersey tries to come to grips with the fallout of a nearly unprecedented national economic collapse. He proposed holding off on imposing a 2.5% developer’s fee, which would kill future development in the Garden State. This is an important first step in balancing the interests of potential homebuyers and private industry business partners in New Jersey.

We must focus our resources on redeveloping aging municipalities. While not every family can afford to live in a multi-million dollar mansion, we do have an obligation, embodied in the court’s Mount Laurel decisions, to provide decent, affordable homes to our State’s hard-working men and women. While we shouldn’t shoehorn new affordable housing development into cities, we should provide incentives to redevelop these areas and move to a smart-growth model which promotes development around mass-transit hubs.

Finally, we must treat affordable housing as an infrastructure need. If it’s in the public’s interest to build new affordable housing developments, then it is appropriate to use public resources to build these developments. As we look to Washington and federal leaders for enhanced infrastructure support, we should consider using a portion of it to help build homes people can afford.

We need a new model which balances appropriate business development with residential development and makes better use of our urban centers and public resources. Tempered with rational and proven planning methods, affordable housing can be achieved in the Garden State.

Senator Raymond J. Lesniak represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes parts of Union County, in the New Jersey State Senate. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, and has sponsored S-2485, to amend COAH guidelines to ease pressure off needed economic development in the State of New Jersey.

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