Wayne hosted another public session on affordable housing Wednesday night. It was a long, but important and even more informative than the previous two sessions, which were excellent. The bottom line – our affordable housing obligation is the law. There is no option but to satisfy the court; however, we do have choices about how best to meet our obligation.
Our leadership says that the only practical way to meet our obligation is to negotiate with developers who approach us on friendly terms or, more often, threaten to sue us. For developers who threaten lawsuits, the Fair Housing Act is nothing but an axe to cut through our zoning and planning ordinances and processes. These developers would love to create projects with one affordable out of every 20 units. Fortunately, the worst so far is one affordable out of 10 units. In other words, it is not affordable housing that creates overdevelopment; it is developers who could care less about Wayne’s character and the low- and moderate-income households they are using to justify projects denser than almost all of Wayne’s residential neighborhoods.
Nobody is suggesting that our Administration does not have tough choices. They must deal with the AvalonBays of the world and sometimes push them to the brink of our immunity to protect Wayne from ultra-high-density projects. But our township has options that the presenters all dismissed – options that worked right here in Wayne in prior rounds.
How many of you who are reading this know that Preakness Commons, on Nellis Drive, across from the library, is an all-affordable family development that was municipally sponsored? This project of about 100 rental units has been an asset to the neighborhood, not a liability. Only last year, Whole Foods opened at the nearby intersection of Valley Road and Preakness Avenue – hardly a sign of lower property values.
Similarly, Summerhill Senior Apartments off Berdan Ave is an all-affordable development of more than 150 rental units. It has not hurt real estate values in nearby Pines Lake, Woods at Waterview, Point View Estates or Waterview Estates.
I never knew this development or Preakness Commons were all-affordable units until I started reading about what Wayne did in the past because I was worried about what we are not doing in the present. These two developments were critical to achieving Wayne’s prior rounds obligation; and Summerhill generated an excess that will go toward our round 3 obligation.
Despite this history, all the presenters appeared determined not to consider similar options.
Nobody is suggesting they are the only solution. Rather, they can be one part of a solution that minimizes overdevelopment. If our obligation is adjusted from 2271 down to 1000, a development of 100 affordable units and 100 market rate units could cut overdevelopment by hundreds of units.
The market rate units could make the revenue stream viable. Siena Village operates under this model and is managed on a nonprofit basis. Depending on specifics, incentives like a payment in lieu of taxes might be required, but they will cost far less than the traffic, roads, infrastructure, services, etc. for hundreds of additional units that developers are demanding. We are not suggesting that we can put a stop to developer demands. We are suggesting that we can minimize and influence them.
The presenters consistently dismissed any options other than the current one as too costly; but they never touched upon the revenue side of the equation; and it is the rental revenue from the market rate units that makes Siena Village work. The same could be true of a municipally-sponsored project that mixed market rate and affordable units at a ratio of 1-to-1 or 2-to-1. The presenters basically ignored the additional costs of infrastructure and increased population generated by their strategy that relies completely on developers. In other words, they do not appear to have considered options that work right here in Wayne. While we all appreciate the administration driving a hard bargain with developers, haven’t they surrendered our future to them completely by poo-poohing nonprofit and municipally-sponsored options as a part of our solution?
We need a proactive approach to these issues – planning rather than surrendering to the myth that we have no choices. Our development future is determined by market forces, not affordable housing. The business environment surrounding land use has changed dramatically since our 1994 Master Plan, as everyone in the administration agrees; yet they tell us they will not develop a new plan until the affordable housing obligation has been satisfied. This does not make sense. As in 1994, Wayne will contract a 3rd party planning firm to develop a new master plan, working closely with township staff and residents. There is no better time to start than now. The process demands a major data gathering effort ranging from demographics to economics; and the process demands drawing on the experience of other municipalities, most of which have solved the problem we are still handling.
Good planning coupled with a modern Master Plan and an affirmative marketing plan for housing will draw developers who are attracted to the character of Wayne and want to preserve it. This is the best situation for us and for low- and moderate-income residents we are required to accommodate. Part of this planning should include options other than the current wait and see which developers show up approach that threatens to make overdevelopment inevitable.
Please, friends and neighbors, disregard the comments several presenters made that nonprofit and municipally sponsored projects are too small to be significant. The five projects approved so far created only 234 affordable units while adding 1369 units to Wayne’s housing stock – almost 8%! Similarly, please disregard attorney Matt Cavaliere’s negative comments about the idea of Wayne financing all our 2271 unit obligation. Nobody is suggesting that.
I appreciate the long hours Mayor Vergano, Chris Kok, and Planning Board attorney Cavaliere put in for our community (planning board hours alone are overwhelming); however, I respectfully suggest that they reconsider several issues as per my comments here.
Market forces, new technologies, environmental constraints, population growth, and climate change are creating incredible challenges for Wayne. If we begin planning and expanding the inclusiveness of the planning process, we will be better able to influence our future redevelopment and development projects AND maintain the community character that brought us all here in the first place. Affordable housing is a positive for our community and will attract the younger demographic we have been losing, including some of our children. Overdevelopment will not. Please understand that half of affordable households are families of moderate income and many include essential workers who have kept us going through the worst of times; and consider that some homeowners, including my wife and me, could end up in moderate- or low-income brackets if we have another economic downturn like 2008.