Shouldn't the cost of housing be the measure of affordability?

Jersey City Aerial
Can you spot the affordable housing units from here? Image from

Should an apartment, townhouse, or condo automatically be considered affordable – no matter the cost or rent? That would be crazy, right?

A New Jersey State Senator has introduced a bill that would do exactly that, letting cities and towns off the hook for producing desperately needed affordable housing units if they merely have a lot of multi-unit buildings.

Legislation introduced by State Senator Raymond Lesniak (and passed out of committee today) would have devastating consequences for the state – limiting the supply of housing that lower-income residents can afford, undermining affordable housing laws, encouraging more sprawl, and setting back regional equity gains made in past years.

Under the legislation, towns in which at least 33 percent of the overall housing stock is made up of multi-unit buildings – apartments, townhouses, or condominiums – regardless of their cost, will be designated as “inclusionary” (i.e., affordable) and exempted from providing new affordable units. If a town doesn’t meet this significantly relaxed standard, it will be required to change its zoning so that land is set aside or prioritized for residential development, with only minimal affordability requirements – and zero requirements for providing that housing near jobs or transit options.

This would mean that 50 percent of New Jersey’s cities and towns – almost 300 in total – would no longer be obligated to provide any affordable housing. It would also mean that low-income families would be cut off from opportunities to live in transit-accessible neighborhoods, which are more likely to contain the required percentage of multi-family housing units, forcing them out to areas far from jobs and driving up their costs for housing plus transportation. (Truthfully, a much better measurement of housing affordability.)

Advocates from New Jersey’s affordable housing, environmental, smart growth, and equity communities have all vehemently opposed the bill. Sierra Club of New Jersey’s executive director Jeff Tittel pointed out that Governor Corzine’s luxury condo in Hoboken would be considered affordable housing under the legislation, Kevin Walsh of the Fair Share Housing Center called it “the policy equivalent of throwing a dart at a dart board”, and the NJ NAACP filed a formal ethics complaint against the bill’s sponsors, who legally represent 40 of the cities and towns this bill would impact as paid legal counsel.

Lesniak’s proposal, which he describes as a market driven approach to affordable housing, was scheduled for a committee vote today, where it passed unanimously. Advocates are hopeful that the glaringly obvious flaws in this legislation will halt its progress, and that they’ll be able to work with New Jersey lawmakers to find rational ways to provide homes that people can afford throughout the region.

A full vote by the State Senate is scheduled for March 22.

Divorcing the measurement of affordability from the actual cost and tying it merely to “type” of housing makes little sense – and will do nothing to satisfy the need for housing near jobs and transit that low-income New Jersey residents can afford.