Written Testimony Before the New Jersey General Assembly Housing and Community Development Hearing on the Affordable Housing Needs of the State

July 25, 2018

By Alexander M. Smith, Mayor, Scotch Plains

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Chairman Wimberly, Vice Chairwoman Chaparro, and distinguished members of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, I am Mayor Al Smith from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about what is perhaps one of the most important issues facing our state.

Since being sworn-in as Mayor in January 2017, one of the most significant challenges my Township Council colleagues and I have faced is settling our state-mandated, third-round affordable housing obligations, which we finally did in April 2018.

First, let me say that the people of Scotch Plains are not against affordable housing. We are a caring, inclusive town, and we are working hard to meet our constitutional obligation as it relates to affordable housing. There is no doubt that we need to provide affordable housing in New Jersey. When I campaigned for Mayor in 2016, it was very obvious that there is an affordable housing need for low and moderate-income families, seniors, Millennials, veterans, and those with special needs as well as many other groups.

To implement our affordable housing settlement, Scotch Plains will have to allow for the building of approximately 2,655 living units, of which only 454 will be deemed affordable units. This has to be done in seven years. Scotch Plains currently only has about 7,500 units. Our affordable housing settlement, if implemented in its entirety, will lead to a 35% increase in the number of housing units, and assuming an occupation rate of 2.5 persons per unit, will lead to an additional 6,638 residents or a 28% increase in our current population of 24,064. It also cost the township over $250,000 in legal, planning and court costs to produce this overburdening, overdevelopment settlement.

Scotch Plains has no train station, limited bus service, and limited resources to handle this new capacity of units and population. Can our aging infrastructure, filled school system, and first responders handle this surge in population?  In the court process, these critical questions are not addressed, creating a recipe for disaster for municipalities.

Based on my experience in Scotch Plains, the current court-driven process is out of control and will result in the mindless building of high density residential projects, which in many cases will be built in areas not suited for high density housing while breaking the resources and infrastructure of municipalities. And the sad fact is that it will not effectively or efficiently fulfil our state’s affordable housing need, whatever the real affordable housing demand is.

The principal method of meeting affordable housing needs is with inclusionary rental housing developments that only provide a 15% set-aside for affordable housing units, which are the classic builder’s remedy projects.  I believe the affordable housing numbers are not currently being calculated in a transparent way, which is why the State Legislature again needs to take responsibility for calculating the numbers. In my opinion, profit motives have compromised the original Mt. Laurel intent of providing affordable housing to providing developers with enormous profit, while leaving taxpayers to deal with the consequences of overdevelopment.

So here are my recommendations to make the process more realistic:

  1. Shift the determination of affordable housing obligations from the courts to the State, making sure that affordable housing needs are transparently calculated by an independent group that reflects the current population growth of New Jersey.
  2. Distribute affordable housing requirements by region considering the resources of each region with additional State support required when necessary. Include the mayors in each region to understand development opportunities, infrastructure needs, transportation options, and impact on schools, town services, and town population growth.
  3. Make the minimum affordable housing set-aside percentage for a builder’s remedy 30 percent. For Scotch Plains, our total number of new residential units would drop from 2,655 to 1,513, while still providing 454 affordable housing units.
  4. Provide additional state funding for children living in affordable housing units and attending the local public school system helping to remove one of the biggest obstacles to implementing affordable housing while caring for the overburdened New Jersey taxpayer.
  5.  Allow municipalities to set-aside up to 50 percent of affordable housing in a project for their low-income residents who need housing and want to stay in their community.  For example, the lack of affordable units makes it difficult for the township to retain its firefighters. Additionally, in a recent town survey, 20 percent of Scotch Plains residents indicated they would take advantage of affordable housing options.
  6. Affordable Housing projects containing greater than 20 units should be coordinated with NJ Transit, County Planning Boards and other Regional Planning Groups to help New Jersey better plan and prepare for their residents.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a member of this Committee, has already introduced a set of Assembly bills that address many of these recommendations, and I have previously offered to Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, to serve on an affordable housing mayors’ advisory group. I’m ready to do so.

The time is now for the State Legislature to take the lead on fixing affordable housing.

Thank you.

Alexander M. Smith
Scotch Plains Mayor