NEWARK, NJ - A Democratic assemblyman who is also a gubernatorial candidate has taken a stand on housing, calling "affordable” housing “a moral obligation.”

John Wisniewski believes that the state's housing issues should be tackled with a practical approach as part of a progressive agenda.

“We have to address this gap in our humanity," said Wisniewski, of Middlesex County, at an event he held on Monday.

Sign Up for E-News

"We have to call it what it is," Wisniewski said. "We have a foreclosure crisis because we have a greed crisis. We have to make sure that the foreclosure crisis is solved in favor of all of those families that are looking for truly affordable housing."

The state’s share of distressed properties is the highest percentage in the nation, according to a report by RealtyTrac. But Hunterdon’s foreclosure rate – which it lists at one in every 1,208 homes – is not far from the national average, which is one in every 1,594 homes.

By comparison, in Essex County where Wisniewski was speaking, the rate is one in every 467 homes.

Affordable housing remains a major concern throughout the state. In a decision that could reshape hundreds of communities, the state Supreme Court ruled in January that municipalities must allow the development of affordable housing for poor and middle-class families whose needs were ignored for more than 16 years, a period when state the Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, was effectively neutralized by legal and political disputes.

The decision reaffirmed the Court's commitment to a series of landmark housing rulings in the Mount Laurel cases that date to 1975. For decades, New Jersey justices have said that the state's poorest residents have a right to affordable housing opportunities in their communities and that municipalities must allow a reasonable level of development. The ruling is likely to be a catalyst for the development of tens of thousands of “affordable” housing units in New Jersey over the next decade.

Wisniewski’s proposes establishing a state land trust to acquire land rights where foreclosed properties are located. Wisniewski maintains that funds that had been earmarked for affordable housing that were never used would form the seed money for the program, which would remove the land costs from buying foreclosed properties, therefore facilitating their purchase and future productive use.

"The land is owned by the state land trust, and the structure is owned by the homeowner," Wisniewski said. "This makes the structure that much cheaper. You want to make sure that somebody gets ownership. This is the first step."

Wisniewski is locked in a Democratic primary battle with several other candidates, including state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D - Union); former Treasury official and federal prosecutor Jim Johnson; and former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.

Murphy has proposed the creation of a public bank, owned by the people of New Jersey, designed to make investments in the state.

Murphy says he believes that the creation a public bank would provide capital to communities that have been ignored by the financial system, including minority communities and businesses owned by people of color.

Wisniewski, however, challenged the concept of a public bank concept, pointing to Trenton's recent record regarding fiscal governance. 

"We have not fully funded our pension obligation for 20 years. We have overspent our Transportation Trust fund for 20 years. We have not fully funded education for the past seven years," Wisniewski said, who has served in the Assembly for 21 years and is a former state Democratic chairman.

"The concept of giving a banking role to the same governmental institutions that have failed us on pensions and education and transportation just worries me," he said.

The Wisniewski town hall event was hosted by the People's Organization for Progress, a grassroots, community organization based in Newark.