Report blames zoning laws for lack of affordable housing in New Jersey



By Megan DeMarco/Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — Development of big homes on big lots and zoning that favors businesses over townhouses has stymied efforts to make wealthy towns affordable for low-income residents and helped push New Jersey’s suburban sprawl, a new report to be released today concludes.

The report, conducted by Rowan University, says it’s tougher for lower-income residents to afford to live in wealthy suburban towns today than it was in 1970.

All this occurs despite the long effort to push towns to add affordable housing and adhere to "smart growth" initiatives, and zoning rules are to blame, the report says.

"Municipalities are making it almost impossible to build apartments and townhouses that are affordable to middle-class New Jerseyans," said Adam Gordon, spokesman for Fair Share Housing Center, which paid for the study. "Middle-class families cannot afford a three-acre home."

Bill Dressel, executive director of the state’s League of Municipalities, said no one has advocated more for a consistent state planning policy than New Jersey’s towns and cities.

Although he declined to comment at length before reading the full report, Dressel said local officials should have been questioned during the research.

"I’m rather suspect of a report that does not really address the local circumstances on why zoning and planning decisions are made the way they are," Dressel said.

The report says development of large suburban lots holding just one or two homes an acre dominated the state since 1986, while the construction of more affordable apartments, townhouses, and smaller single-family developments tapered.

Before 1986, 58 percent of residential development was in cities and already built-up suburbs. Since then, two thirds occurred in rural and less compact areas, the report says. Most of the remaining land in the state that can be developed is zoned for big lots in less populated areas, said John Hasse, a Rowan University professor and author of the report.

The report adds to an already-contentious debate over how to comply with court-ordered affordable housing mandates. Last week, Gov. Chris Christie abolished the Council on Affordable Housing, long criticized for being overly burdensome and ineffectively implementing affordable housing rules, and shifted its duties to the state Department of Community Affairs.

It found that although it’s not a catch-all, court-ordered affordable housing efforts were effective in some areas, and sprawl would be significantly worse without them.

The report also says municipalities have focused on industrial and commercial development, which pays tax dividends, rather than multi-unit apartments and townhouses that bring in more school-aged children.

"Municipalities want as few households as possible on any given piece of land," said Tim Evans, research director for New Jersey Future, a nonpartisan research group that helped produce the report.

In two of the state’s fastest-growing counties — Somerset and Monmouth — the report found current zoning laws would create a disproportionate number of jobs to housing units. If every area that could be zoned was built to capacity, Somerset would have 16 jobs for each housing unit, and Monmouth would have seven.

The recommended number is about one and a half jobs per housing unit. The result would be gridlock traffic, long commutes, and families moving out of state, experts warn.