Guest Column

Affordable Housing in Newark – A More Informed Path Forward

24 Jones, a recently completed luxury apartment complex in the University Heights section of Newark's Central Ward.

I am both a beneficiary and benefactor of affordable housing in Newark. My parents both played key roles in organizing and implementing the first wave of low income and affordable housing in the City of Newark more than 50 years ago and in so doing, they created the template for many of the community development organizations, which have and continue to do business in the City of Newark. 

I was also born and raised in housing originally built for low-income families, so I am deeply rooted in the sensitivities of this subject matter.    

As such, I had a front row seat to the fundamental inner workings of Newark’s earliest iterations of providing housing for its low and moderate-income families.  I have a keen appreciation for the challenges and complications in setting strategy and policy to make such an effort successful.  

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While much has changed over the last 50 years, I have never stopped advocating for best practices in the development of affordable housing in the most thoughtful and strategic manner possible. 

My opinion column of July 21, 2017 has brought about an extraordinary amount of positive commentary both locally and regionally from all sides of the issue.  At the same time, it has prompted much needed additional discussion on the current version of the inclusionary zoning ordinance under consideration, and the manner in which it is currently conceptualized and framed.

This is precisely what I had hoped for, a more comprehensive, critical and thoughtful conversation on an enormously complex set of dynamics that will impact Newark and its residents for decades to come.  

My concern of course, is that the governing body pushes forward with a hastily crafted one-dimensional approach to a multi-dimensional problem.  

This is a policy decision that has long-term implications on the city’s ability to provide housing for not just its low and moderate-income families, but also its homeless and those newcomers that are willing to take a chance on Newark after years of shunning the thought.  

It is also a decision that will impact the very core of the city’s fiscal condition, which at the moment cannot even bear a minor misstep at the hands of a policy blunder. 

What I have discovered since the printing of my original opinion piece has confirmed the fears of so many stakeholders in the city.  

Specifically, the most forceful proponents of the inclusionary zoning ordinance in its current form don’t fully comprehend its content, its requirements, its compliance and administration, its off-market terms and, most of all, the impact it will have on investment and financing for both market-rate housing and importantly, affordable, low-income and workforce housing in the city.  

My efforts on this matter are not a “campaign being waged against the inclusionary zoning ordinance,” but are borne of a startling lack of understanding by its advocates of even the most basic components of the ordinance.

The problem is not one of confusion on the part of the governing body, the solution to which can be easily corrected by a few tweaks to the language and re-voted upon this week.  

It goes much deeper than that. We have not done our homework. We have not fully engaged all of the critical stakeholders. We have not brought the appropriate professional resources to the table. We have allowed politics to trump sound policy.  

Yet we insist on pursuing a path that will likely prove to be a square peg for a round hole, a peg that partially worked for California or maybe Boston. But for Newark? We have no idea.

The not-for-profit community seems to acknowledge that the inclusionary zoning ordinance is not a cure-all for the city’s housing challenges, but yet fails to mention what other measures it or the city has or should be taking as part of what should be a multi-pronged approach to addressing the issue.  

A brief summary of some of the critical issues and policy that remain unaddressed in the inclusionary zoning ordinance as currently drafted:   

  • How to preserve existing low and moderate income housing in addition to building new units.
  • Addressing the enormous stock of existing underutilized or dormant housing and vacant land in the city, both publicly and privately owned.
  • Setting aggressive policy, enforcement and recapture of properties that are subject to previous development agreements, in-rem foreclosures and other code violations.
  • Ensuring that the city’s traditional not-for-profit partners are properly deploying public resources, land and tax concessions.
  • Pursuing other creative sources of subsidized financing to offset the impact of the set-aside. This is especially critical given the impending federal budget cuts to the low-income housing tax credit program.
  • Provision and financing of greater home-ownership opportunities.
  • A broader sourcing for funding of the proposed Affordable Housing Trust Fund (not just new market-rate residential development).
  • A direct link between new affordable housing development and job training/apprentice programs including strict adherence and compliance with local/minority sourcing. 
  • Exploration of a single-family rental program or fund for the countless scattered site homes now unoccupied or underutilized. 
  • A plan for developing and funding housing for the homeless.  

As for the terms of the inclusionary zoning ordinance itself, I have received the most feedback questioning the practicality of the following provisions:

  • The procedures for the proposed “random selection process”.
  • The process for determining and valuing the “payment in lieu”.
  • The city’s right of first refusal to purchase after the 30-year control period.
  • The process by which Newark residents will be given “preference” for the units
  • The ability of the city to administer and force compliance with the ordinance.

This is just a small sampling of what I believe must be addressed in the context of crafting an inclusionary zoning ordinance. I will not create policy in a vacuum.  

It is just plain wrong to think that we are serving our community by taking a piecemeal and largely uninformed approach to a much more comprehensive challenge that we are now faced with.  

We can’t simply rely on the statements of those few that have worked on crafting the inclusionary zoning ordinance, many of whom have vested interests one side of the issue or the other.  

We must also be cautious not to apply old solutions and formulas that have worked in other cities but have little or uncertain applicability to Newark.  

I cordially invite my council colleagues, the private sector and the not-for profit community to mobilize and challenge themselves to work smarter and with dispatch in the best interests of the citizens of Newark, rather than settle for a hasty, disjointed effort with the inclusionary zoning ordinance in its current form. 

Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins is the councilwoman representing the Central Ward.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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