Despite protests from various neighborhood groups, on Thursday the City Council voted 7-2, with Ward C councilman Richard Boggiano and Ward F councilman Frank Gilmore voting “No”, to amend the city’s land development ordinance.
The new provision, called the “Affordable Housing Overlay” (AHO) will allow developers to build additional units above the maximum permitted units per provided they “fulfill certain community benefits and performance standards.” The provision does not let developers change the height, footprint, or setback of a new building in return for concessions on affordability.
Community leaders from different parts of the city expressed serious reservations about the new policy, which has the support of the N.J. Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group for “housing justice.”
A letter to the city council from six neighborhood associations argued that “The AHO removes any limit on density, allowing developers to increase the number of units in their buildings if they include one or more ‘affordable’ units.” By way of example, said the group “developers could squeeze 9 or 10 units onto a standard 25’ x 100’ lot, where now only a 1- or 2 family dwelling is permitted. Or, if the project does not meet the 1-unit AHO minimum, then developers would be allowed to make a contribution to Jersey City’s Affordable Housing Trust. On-site affordable housing is not assured. Developers building projects with less than 5 units could maximize profits without adding any affordable unit and would likely come out ahead even after giving money to the Trust.”
Speaking for the group, Caroline Katz called the legislation “yet another developer giveaway that threatens to fundamentally change the character of our city’s low-density R1 (residential) neighborhoods covering 30 percent of Jersey City.”
Boggiano agreed, saying Jersey City was “being destroyed by overbuilding.” He said he had been meeting with Journal Square residents to come up with an alternate housing strategy and urged the council to postpone action on the ordinance until next month.
Gilmore also called for a delay until the city could arrange for more in-person meetings with community groups on the issue. His plea to wait was echoed by residents like Laura Moss of the Hilltop Neighborhood Association, who said she hadn’t heard enough from city planning “to explain how this (change) will benefit low-income housing. … You haven’t sold it to me.”
But Ward B Council member Mira Prinz-Arey disagreed. She said, “At its core, this is a very good ordinance” for those on tighter housing budgets.
Ward A Council member Denise Ridley said the city had had meetings with her constituents to explain the rationale behind the ordinance and that now “we should move forward.”
Ward D Council member Yousef Saleh called the ordinance “good policy.” He said that, as a Heights homeowner for many years, he’d seen single-family homes demolished and replaced with “box condos.” This ordinance, he said, would allow for a variety of housing stock and give homeowners “a chance for survival” in an overpriced market.
Ward E Councilman James Solomon said that he’d have preferred to table the ordinance for further review but “the core idea (of the ordinance) is a good idea. We have to use all the tools in our toolbox to create more affordable housing” while keeping “a watchful eye” on the new law’s application.
Council member-at-large Amy DeGise said that through application of the new law, “We can actually provide more affordable 3-bedroom units (and) more diverse housing.” According to Matt Ward, principal planner for the city, the AHO “will now require that if only one onsite affordable unit is produced (as part of a new project with 10 or fewer affordable units), then that unit shall be a three-bedroom unit.”
Council president Joyce Watterman said she hoped that the new law would help provide affordable living spaces for people like firefighters and police officers working in the city. “We’re not trying to hurt you,” she told the audience. “This will help Black and Brown people.”