LETTER: Affordable housing isn’t just about court orders; it’s about people

EDITOR: Since jurisdiction over Madison’s affordable housing obligations was transferred to the courts in 2015, focus has centered on the declaratory judgment litigation.

Each non-urban municipality in New Jersey has been part of this complex process — and there are no easy answers. Plans for resolution require speaking to complicated technical formulas and terms, scarcity of land on which to build, escalation in property values and the corresponding significant increase in home prices, rents, and scarcity of funding.

Housing is largely market-driven and individualized, maximizing property values being a primary goal of individual residents, landowners, and municipal governments. Since the Great Recession, the largest gains in New Jersey have been in transit-accessible communities like Madison with downtown centers. Sixty-two percent of new housing permits in New Jersey in 2016 were for luxury multifamily projects, many in northern New Jersey; source 2013-2017 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau.

Interaction with social factors — racial and ethnic tensions, employment location, access to transportation, local school reputation, trends in taste and culture — all factor into future planning for municipalities like Madison and present concurrent challenges to space, funding and other constraints.

Many levels of government involvement make for a complicated navigation maze. On a local level, there are, for example, resolutions of need, tax abatements and PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes), planning and zoning approvals, building permits, or the provision of land on which to build. On a county level, there may be grants or loans available from time to time. On a state level, there are set standards of housing and affordability and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (NJHMFA), as a lender, may provide rent assistance. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides some public housing support, rental assistance, voucher and tax credit programs, to name a few.

Funding availability directly impacts what happens — and doesn’t. The current system meets neither capital nor operational needs. In addition, certain HUD programs have fostered the growth of for-profit developers, not-for-profit developers and not-for-profit advocacy firms that specialize in affordable housing and can reap significant financial benefit from development, and I worry may diminish local control. Careful and thoughtful planning, and taking advantage of timing and collaboration opportunities that present themselves, is key.

Madison has and continues to exercise good judgment in its approach to various options: new construction, rehabilitation programs, acquisitions or buy-downs, those that provide various types of affordability assistance — income limited, workforce housing, public housing, age restricted, special needs — high rise or scattered site. Current national trends include tiny homes, co-housing and mixture of uses — retail, childcare, healthcare, parking and mix with market-rate units. The application process is complex, funding is scarce and government priorities are constantly changing. The above only describes the initial stage of any development.

Madison follows those options that appear viable, as it works to balance market-driven goals, limited money and space to achieve those goals, that less and less funding seems to be available each year, and taking into account that the various options, all of which have pros and cons, are constantly subject to change.

I also want to mention Madison’s funding needs for maintenance and rehabilitation of its existing affordable housing stock, all of which is aging. We are in an environment where the same issues and scarcity of funds exist for these capital projects and operational needs. NJTV News recently ran a story that spoke to the potential for all affordable housing trust funds to be allocated for use only in connection with rental units. Another story spoke of an existing public housing complex in Atlantic City in great need of significant rehabilitation that will require millions of dollars of private developer funding and will take 12 to 18 years to complete.

While our needs in Madison are on a much smaller scale, the issues we face are the same, and as in the case of new developments, there are no clear solutions. Thank you to our elected officials and all who share their commitment to affordable housing for their continued thoughtful and engaged approach to finding them.

I think it’s also important to remember that affordable housing is not just about complying with court orders or settlements, or meeting technical formulas that mainly planners and lawyers understand. It’s about people. Housing is essential for a stable and healthy life, meeting basic, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. It’s important that we don’t forget to humanize the solution process, remember the people whose needs are being met, and ensure they are part of the conversation.

Read this letter on the Madison Eagle.

MELISSA ELIAS

Green Village Road

Madison