How Affordable Housing
Can Reboot a
By Christiana Foglio
Founder/Owner and CEO,
Community Investment Strategies, Inc.
For many years, the Council on Affordable Housing’s (COAH) regulations have been like the “tail wagging the dog,” in terms of New Jersey’s approach to providing affordable housing options to families statewide. Even a staunch affordable housing advocate and a former chairperson of COAH like myself, must admit the rules just do not make sense anymore.
Currently, municipalities find themselves reacting to COAH rather than the actual, present-day, low-to-moderate income, housing needs of all residents, from young adults and families to seniors, throughout the state. The timing is right for the New Jersey Legislature to take a new look at this critical issue, without creating further divides along the lines of race and economic advantage. Unfortunately, these issues historically dominated too much of the COAH debate.
Like many states, New Jersey has gained first-hand experience in the residential housing market rollercoaster ride. For years, housing values kept climbing, only to drop off rapidly when the market fell. In addition to impacting the American dream of home ownership, the housing crash changed the debate of what is affordable and who should benefit from affordable housing policy.
The historic context of giving teachers, firefighters and municipal employees an opportunity to live in the towns where they work (as articulated in the early Mount Laurel decisions) still rings true as a basic goal of New Jersey housing policy. Moreover, the belief that exclusionary zoning is bad for neighborhoods and for New Jersey, has been proven. Many municipalities can attest to the value of affordable housing developments, both in terms of filling a need and positively impacting property values in surrounding neighborhoods.
What to do in a time of COAH limbo? Many municipalities are subscribing to the “do-nothing” philosophy, until a rule or lawsuit requires action. This is a mistake. Now is the best time to look at your community’s housing needs and what the municipality can gain by meeting these needs. Consider the following questions: Does the downturn and large number of foreclosures present new ways to stabilize a community and offer affordable housing options? Is the downtown commercial district suffering? If so, could a senior project, specifically an affordable senior development, put people on the street with disposable dollars to support the local coffee shop, dry cleaner and hairdresser? Can affordable housing actually be viewed as an economic development tool?
The answer to all of these questions is “Yes!” You can use affordable housing as a tool to solve problems and improve the community for all residents.
Consider the example of Bentley Woods in Glassboro. An older, privately owned rental community, Bentley Woods was extremely outdated and long past its prime. It provided affordable housing to 80 families in Glassboro. Under the COAH rules, the city did not receive any credit for these units since they were built prior to 1980. Moreover, the property was mismanaged and became a hub for criminal activity. The units were in considerable disrepair, and the tenants were exhausted by a lack of landlord response to their health and safety concerns.
In a bold move, Glassboro officials decided to reposition this property, through the Fair Housing Act, and considered exercising eminent domain. Through the use of their developer fee funds and the 9 percent tax credit program, the town’s development partner, Community Investment Strategies (CIS), Inc., was able to finance, develop, construct and provide management services as part of a comprehensive redevelopment program. Now known as Whitney Crescent, the new development was designed using defensible space principles, which eliminated common hallways and corridors to create a livable, vibrant community. Strong management policies are now in place and residents can raise their children in a safe environment. By establishing an aggressive housing strategy focused on broad community needs, Glassboro officials transformed a blighted, obsolete complex into a beautiful new townhouse rental community, while preserving the Section 8 contracts and securing COAH credits.
With or without COAH, current economic conditions present opportunities for New Jersey’s municipalities to address aging housing stock, blighted neighborhoods and foreclosed residential housing. Affordable housing policy can be an effective catalyst for economic growth. The impact of affordable housing is not income specific—it has been proven to enhance the lifestyle of one and all.
Ms. Foglio spearheads and oversees all of Community Investment Strategies, Inc.’s fully integrated real estate activities related to multi-family housing, mixed-use redevelopments and market-rate and affordable housing. She specializes in commercial real estate developments and low-to-moderate housing initiatives that reflect each community’s vision, needs and character.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 8, November 2011