Solving the Real Housing Crisis

Apr 8, 2010   //   by PlanSmart NJ   //   Speaks Out Blog  //  Comments Off on Solving the Real Housing Crisis

by Dianne Brake

New Jersey has not one but three affordable housing crises.

  • There is the real crisis: there is a huge backlog of need for workforce and special needs housing in the right locations and no plan for the future.
  • There is the temporary crisis: the NJ Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) was led into a regulatory disaster that has forced a temporary crisis over what should be done to fix it.
  • And then there is the manufactured crisis: ignoring both the real and the temporary crisis, some leaders are acting as if municipalities had to be saved from the responsibility to zone in a Constitutional manner.

Admittedly, focusing on the real crisis is difficult: it means having to change many long-held views, end many long-established regulatory programs, restructure property taxes, and give the state a role in land use decisions – in other words, having to demonstrate extraordinary leadership.

But government has the power to do what is needed. And given the state of our economy and the real possibility of losing our high standard of living over the next few years, the time for extraordinary leadership is today.

First, change zoning almost everywhere. The paradigm driving zoning is an out-of-date suburban model that sets separate uses and low densities, even in some important growth areas such as downtowns and train station areas. These places should be identified for housing development – they are of equal importance to the state as the environmental resources already protected by the state in the Highlands and the Pinelands.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This does not mean ending Home Rule. It just means ending fragmented decision-making over issues that are of statewide and regional significance.

Here is how zoning affects housing prices and availability:

    • Zoning affects the supply: Studies show that there is too little land zoned residential at the right densities in the right places, and the pent-up demand pushes the price of housing up. At build-out, zoning in the Route 1 Corridor, for example, will triple the jobs-to-housing ratio.


  • Zoning affects the type of homes: Large lots and large homes cost more and are a product of zoning requirements. We have enough of a supply of these. Inclusionary zoning (smaller, denser units to reduce costs) should be put into place in strategic growth areas. Inclusionary development (internal subsidies from density bonuses) is a weaker substitute to the Constitutional mandate to zone responsibly to provide a fair share of the region’s need for affordable housing.

There are other reasons to change suburban-style zoning: it will build growth capacity, keep our skilled labor force, protect the remaining open land and retrofit suburban employment centers and revitalize downtowns to create the vibrant mixed-use destinations that the new workforce demands.

Second, restructure regulations: The era of having the private sector foot the bill for public necessities and amenities has been ended by the collapse of the economy. The public sector, of course, is in no position to pick up the slack. Coffers are empty and the pressure is on to cut services and taxes.

The answer is for government to act like drivers negotiating a dangerous curve and keep their eyes on the distant point beyond the curve.

While cutting programs, government must find more efficient and frugal ways to improve conditions, moving from a command-and-control system to one based on performance standards and collaborations. Government must cut any waste of time and waste of effort and make sure that new programs are strategic and mutually-supporting, getting more bang for the buck.

For example, plans for housing should be integrated with plans for economic expansion, while focusing on reducing the concentration of poverty. This can cut costs and improve outcomes.

Another example is to regulate by watersheds rather than separate wastewater, stormwater, water supply, and water quality regulatory programs. Another is to focus transportation programs on building a transit-centric system rather than on individual projects scattered across the state.

Third, reduce the cost of density: For urban areas, transit hubs, and downtowns, construction over three stories high requires steel construction and structured parking (spaces in parking garages are 10 times more costly than spaces in a surface parking lot). In some areas, the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites must be added, and these are not only in urban areas: agricultural and other activities in rural and suburban areas sometimes pollute sites.

Meanwhile we are asking the private sector to buy Transfer of Development Rights credits and to subsidize affordable housing. How do all these costs get reduced?

Government must invest in density, perhaps establishing more efficient brownfields clean-up programs; a statewide parking authority, land assembly and housing land trust programs in strategic growth areas. The benefits of investing in density are numerous and worth every public penny.

Density in the right locations — to revitalize urban areas, retrofit suburban areas and save rural lands — must be identified in a strong and independent State Plan that promotes transparency in government and accountability for results.

Fourth, the cost of living in high-opportunity communities must be recognized: In any state that is close to build-out, which has good schools, access to many jobs, and has many features of a good quality of life, the cost of land, the cost of labor, and the cost of living will be high.

We do not want to reduce the cost of living by making New Jersey less attractive.

New Jersey’s government must invest more strategically in infrastructure and subsidy programs that will attract high value economic development. And it must absolutely reduce any extraneous costs — the costs of waste, over-regulation, and unnecessary constraints on supply.

These can all reduce the costs to housing developers while getting more benefits from government investments and improving the quality of life and the competitiveness of New Jersey’s markets.

The power to act is in hand. The time to act is now. ______________________________________________________
Dianne Brake is currently President of PlanSmart NJ, Founded in 1968, PlanSmartNJ is a Trenton-based statewide not-for-profit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. PlanSmart NJ aims to renew the landscape so that communities in the future will have a sustainable economy and environment, based on strategic approaches for resource efficiency and social equity. Email her at

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