What does it say about the state of New Jersey politics when the most effective message is being delivered by a group of non-profit agencies?
That group would be the Morris County Housing Alliance, an affiliate of the United Way of Northern New Jersey, which in a few short weeks has convinced some municipalities to do what most of those towns have been reluctant to do for years – commit funds to the creation of affordable housing.
The background is this: In 2008 Gov. Jon Corzine, in one attempt to foster the creation of affordable housing in the state gave towns until July 17 of this year to begin to commit the millions of dollars they have collected from developers through fees to build affordable housing.
When it became clear that Gov. Chris Christie, in his quest to deliver a tax cut to the top earners in the state, began to cast around for loose change to fill that budget gap was reaching for the housing money, the towns said, wait a minute.
Christie, of course, is the governor who promised he’s never do that, but in the current mantra of conservative politicians, arbitrarily cutting the size of government to give rich people more money is good policy.
So the governor and some of the South Jersey Democrats, who apparently want to have their names carved into the new medical school buildings at the Christie-Norcross-Sweeney-Rutgers-Rowan Mega University, are crafting a budget that will cut some taxes even though the state faces a multi-million budget gap in the current year because tax revenues have fallen below estimates, and a possible $1 billion gap next year.
Sorry, wrong rant.
But that state money grab prompted the municipal leaders to give an ear to the Housing Alliance members who have been reminding them they have a constitutional responsibility to create housing that is available to all levels of income earners.
The result has been legislation that was co-sponsored by Morris County legislators and passed both houses of the Legislature. Of course the bills need to be signed by the governor who needs the money more than he needs their approval, so the result will be interesting.
Still towns are making commitments to spend the money.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that municipalities across the state are seeking out affordable housing agencies for help.
“Knowing they’re going to lose the money, towns are calling us up and saying: ‘We’ve got money we need to put toward affordable housing. How can you help?’ ” said Blair Schleicher Bravo, the executive director of Morris Habitat for Humanity, who was quoted in the Times. She has recently been contacted by 10 of the county’s 39 municipalities, including the town of Randolph, which granted the organization $1.3 million to build 25 affordable homes.
Why is this a good idea? And why is the Housing Alliance the proper group to deliver this message?
Because since 2004 Alliance members have been explaining New Jersey’s mess of housing laws to municipalities, creating programs to help them meet their legal obligations, and have been using the resources of their members to build housing.
And because construction activity is economic stimulus, and in this case is home grown.
There was a point in the 2007-08 recession that in Morristown’s Second Ward the only housing construction was being conducted by Alliance members Morris Habitat and Homeless Solutions. The two agencies took over vacant homes, messy lots and foreclosed properties and renovated and built new energy-efficient housing for lower-income residents.
That model was replicated across the county by NewBridge Services, The Rose House, housing authorities from Dover, Madison, Morristown, Morris County and others. Denville, Washington Township, Hanover, Randolph Pequannock and other towns committed their affordable housing funds, which helped attract funding from the United Way, national housing funders, and community development funds through Morris County to turn around neighborhoods one house, one block at a time.
And know what, all the dire predictions, especially from municipal leaders, about how affordable housing would lower property values and bring in the undesirables, never happened.
That’s because the people who needed that housing already lived your town, unseen by those afraid to look.
The members of the Housing Alliance are not afraid to look.
Was Abbett Avenue in Morristown better when a ratty old garden and dilapidated house was there before Homeless Solutions put up a new complex? Was that corner on Drakestown Road in Washington Township a better place before a crumbling barn was replaced by 14 units of energy efficient housing? Was Madison better off with an old, empty firestation that is now modern senior housing?
Were the clients of NewBridge and The Rose House better off before new housing was built for them?
Were you better off before that empty house or overgrown lot in your town was converted to new housing?
With this fight, the Housing Alliance has picked the right fight at the right time.
That is what leadership is all about.
Michael Stephen Daigle