New Jersey Regional Coalition Wins Affordable-Housing Victory

Tomorrow afternoon, Gov. Jon Corzine will sign one of the most important changes to New Jersey’s affordable-housing laws since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1985. The centerpiece of […]

Tomorrow afternoon, Gov. Jon Corzine will sign one of the most important changes to New Jersey’s affordable-housing laws since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1985.

The centerpiece of the recent legislation is the abolition of regional contribution agreements (RCA), which have allowed wealthy municipalities to pay poor municipalities to accept their affordable-housing obligation. This law helped perpetuate segregation and increased the concentration of poverty in our inner cities. Under the new law, RCAs are prohibited. The bill also requires every municipality to include “very low income” housing for families earning less than 30 percent of median income and provides a new funding stream for the development of affordable housing.

The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, deserves a lot of credit for steering this housing reform law through the legislature. Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson-Coleman made sure the bill reached very-low-income households.

But the group that deserves most of the credit is the New Jersey Regional Coalition, a faith-based community organizing group, organized by Marty Johnson, the founder of Isles, in 2003. For five years, this grass-roots group has fought for this bill. Tomorrow’s signing is a testament to the power of faith-based community organizing. The group faced fierce opposition from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which consistently championed the viewpoint of the wealthier communities that wanted to avoid their responsibility for building affordable housing.

To win, NJRC had mobilized the religious and business community, the labor movement, mayors of older suburbs, and housing developers. A key moment occurred on November 4, 2007, when NJRC organized more than 1,500 grass-roots leaders from congregations and civic organizations at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens ential project will be forced to build an integrated, mixed-income residential community, where residents who pay market prices will live side by side with lower-income families.

The bill also creates a new statewide funding source through a fee charged on non-residential development that will also lead to more affordable housing. Finally, it’s not just about more affordable housing — it’s also about who that housing reaches. For the first time, the bill requires that 13 percent of all affordable housing in the state reach very-low-income households — families earning less than $23,000 a year.

These families have the most serious housing needs in the state but have been ignored up to this point in implementing Mount Laurel, the New Jersey Supreme Court case that said under New Jersey’s constitution, all our residents have a right to live in decent affordable housing and all municipalities must help make that a reality. Now, housing programs in New Jersey will help everyone from the poor to the middle class.

Another hero in this effort is the extraordinary Peter J. O’Connor, one of the attorneys responsible for the Mount Laurel decision. He has worked tirelessly since 1975 to implement the Mount Laurel doctrine. His group, the Fair Share Housing Center, and along with the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, contributed many of the ideas that went into the new fair housing bill.

So, it is appropriate that the signing ceremony will take place at the Ethel R. Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel and O’Connor’s Fair Share Housing Center will host the bill-signing event.

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