Like many New Jersey towns, South Orange and Maplewood are embroiled in a decades-long conflict over affordable housing obligations. Here’s what will happen next.

SOUTH ORANGE AND MAPLEWOOD, NJ — “Why don’t we take a stroll down Valley Street?” asks Vision for Valley, a newly-hatched Facebook group pushing for responsible development on South Orange’s Valley street. There’s a pattern in the enclave of South Orange and Maplewood: activist causes quickly land on the internet, where neighbors send word of rallies, letter-writing events and vote-by-mail parties. A SOMA Facebook group exists for nearly everything, be it immigrant advocacy or entertainment industry mingling.

The advantages of the SOMA microcosm have triggered a recent influx of new residents. If anything, they seek the brief New York City commute — in 2017, South Orange and Maplewood ranked first- and third-most boarded on the Morris & Essex line, according to NJ Transit data, climbing the ranks from previous years.

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Vision for Valley co-founder Melissa Wood moved to South Orange two years ago and found an inclusive community, she said, but worries new developments like the 4th and Valley complex threaten economic diversity.

“Many of the residents, myself included, are not wholesale against development on Valley Street,” Wood said. “We feel there are opportunities here for us to grab onto, including an opportunity for real affordable housing...we would like to see true integration of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds into our neighborhood.”

The subject no doubt lingers in the minds of local officials. Village President Sheena Collum said South Orange “doesn’t have a very strong history in the development of affordable housing” during a July 9 Board of Trustees meeting. The town is seeking redevelopment options and will likely need over 300 units to satisfy current demands, Collum said.

Maplewood currently requires 362 more affordable units, said Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca. DeLuca has advocated for affordable housing since his time on the Maplewood Township Committee 20 years ago. He said Maplewood has a “good” affordable housing track record until recently.

“Property has skyrocketed here in the last 10 years, both for sale and for rent,” DeLuca said. “For folks who are just starting out and single-parent households, it’s more difficult for them to find housing that they can afford.”

New South Orange residents vary slightly from Maplewood’s incoming population, highlighting a difference in the two towns’ affordable housing needs. South Orange’s quickest-growing income bracket exceeds the New Jersey median income. The $75,000 to $99,999 household income range expanded by about 200 homes between 2012 and 2016, according to the U.S. Census.

Meanwhile, Maplewood experienced over 300 percent growth in the minimum income bracket: a less than $10,000 yearly salary. To qualify for affordable housing, a New Jersey family must earn below 80 percent of the county’s median income, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Essex County reported the 2017 median four-person household income as $94,218.

The luxury mixed-use developments cropping up on Valley Street and South Orange Avenue provide an unlikely solution to the growing demand for affordable housing, considering how South Orange and Maplewood are compelled by the state to plan for affordable units. The developers behind gleaming new apartments, including those with Juliet balconies and yoga lawns, must either provide a percentage of income-restricted affordable units or contribute to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

New Jersey’s blame game

All New Jersey towns are legally bound to include affordable housing due to the 1985 Fair Share Housing Act, passed in response to the New Jersey Supreme Court Mount Laurel doctrine cases. The act demands that New Jersey municipalities contribute to the state’s affordable housing need, said Fair Share Housing Center spokesman Anthony Campisi.

Many towns worked around the requirements until 2015, he said, when a New Jersey Supreme Court decision jump-started the affordable housing process and stamped out the state’s failing Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). New Jersey still requires over 250,000 affordable housing units, Campisi said, which will hinge not on state resources but rather trial court decisions.

“New Jersey is one of the most expensive states to live in the country, it’s one of the most racially segregated states...all of that is driven by exclusionary restrictive zoning and land-use laws,” Campisi said. “The Mount Laurel Doctrine is designed to cut through those laws and empower towns, local nonprofits and private developers to [address] that need so there aren’t waiting lists years long.”

Towns can comply with the Housing Act in a number of ways, including pressuring developers to include between 15 and 20 percent affordable housing units in new buildings. The percentage depends on the municipality, Campisi said. A new South Orange ordinance sets aside up to 20 percent of units if developers don’t opt for the trust fund contribution, Sheena Collum said, with a mandatory minimum of 10 percent.

“This ensures that we have inclusionary development and we’re not trying to put people who are low- or moderate- or very-low income into one area of town,” Collum said. “The inclusiveness is very important to us.”

Planners previously skirted the act by participating in now-illegal regional contribution agreements, according to the Fair Share Housing website, in which “wealthy towns could pay to get out of up to half of their obligation by funding the rehabilitation of housing in inner city neighborhoods.” South Orange sold all of its affordable housing credits to East Orange in 2001 when Gaslight Commons was built, claims a study of New Jersey’s Transit Village Initiative.

“Every municipality is different, said HOMECorp Executive Director Melody Federico. “It really depends on the physical landscape of the town.”

HOMECorp is a non-profit affordable housing developer based in Montclair. Federico, who specializes in housing for residents with disabilities, said some towns face legitimate challenges like overcrowding or inadequate infrastructure. One town she worked with sought a group home but was located off of a public water grid, which rendered the project too costly.

She hopes future legislation will allocate greater affordable housing funds to developers, particularly for the high expenses associated with disability housing. Federico has recently witnessed a “communal push” to preserve affordability as Montclair weans off of COAH obligations.

As New Jersey leaves COAH behind and enters a new era of the affordable housing debate, tensions between municipal, state and federal officials run high. Experts disagree on which actor should take charge — or rather, take the blame.

How South Orange and Maplewood have fared

To South Orange Village Trustee Mark Rosner, the onus falls on New Jersey lawmakers and the United States itself. Many New Jersey towns have done nothing to advance affordable housing, Rosner said, but South Orange has tried to exceed COAH targets because their specific unit demands often change unexpectedly.

“It’s such a problem that you really need the state and, to some extent, the federal government,” Rosner said. “Obviously, it’s not happening under this president.”

The gap left by federal and state inaction beckons cooperation between developers and local enforcement of the Mount Laurel Doctrine. Before the landmark court case, though, SOMA still provided considerable affordable housing options. Non-profit developers bought the majority of the two towns’ current affordable housing units between roughly 1996 and 2005, according to state tax records. These properties mainly cater to seniors and individuals with disabilities.

The progress of SOMA’s wider-reaching housing rehabilitation program and affordable housing program is harder to track. Maplewood has completed 19 rehabilitations since 2010, Mayor Victor DeLuca said, while one home is currently in progress. The town must still rehabilitate 114 units to meet the Fair Share Housing Center obligation. South Orange officials are currently working with the village’s COAH counselor to update the rehabilitation data, Rosner said.

As a whole, SOMA’s affordable housing stock has historically lagged behind other popular New Jersey commuter towns. As of 2006, South Orange’s share of affordable housing ranked eighth among the 16 state-designated Transit Villages, according to a study produced that year. As for the affordability of a village’s transit-adjacent units, South Orange fell to tenth.

After the “kick to the system” in 2015, Anthony Campisi said South Orange is one of about 350 New Jersey towns to seek affordable housing plan approval in the state’s Superior Court. The Fair Share Housing Center, along with other affordable housing advocates, aids towns in reaching these court settlements. Municipalities can also enter payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements with developers, as planned with South Orange’s Hub Realty project, or utilize their affordable housing trust funds.

With all of the available options, Campisi said, municipalities cannot blame higher powers for their lack of affordable housing stock.

“That’s honestly an excuse a lot of towns make when they want to continue excluding low-income people and families of color from their communities,” he said. “Towns have a menu of options in deciding how to meet their obligation and it’s simply not true when towns throw up their arms and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do, we have to wait for the state or federal government to act.’

This article is the first in a two-part series on affordable housing in SOMA. The series continues with "A Constantly-Moving Target Part 2: Where SOMA’s Affordable Housing Is Headed," which can be read here.

Correction: The section explaining the Mount Laurel Doctrine has been updated to correctly describe its legal origins.