This Wednesday, the City Council in Jersey City will consider for a second reading (and likely a vote) an inclusionary zoning ordinance recently put forth by the Fulop administration. Unfortunately for the people of Jersey City, this ordinance is inclusionary in name only, with abundant carveouts and loopholes for real estate developers to skimp on building affordable housing units.
In early 2019, City Council members Joyce Watterman and Rolando Lavarro introduced an inclusionary zoning ordinance, and the Fulop administration introduced a competing one, which was widely considered to be more developer-friendly. To reconcile the two ordinances, an Inclusionary Zoning Committee was formed, composed of the majority of council members. This committee, led by Councilperson Lavarro, held a series of meetings over the course of the past year, which were open for public viewing. However, after the committee reached a compromise through this transparent process, Mayor Fulop and his team put forth a new ordinance, developed entirely behind the scenes and ignoring many key provisions reached by consensus in committee. This is the ordinance now being considered by the City Council.
Not only was the process questionable, but the substance of this new ordinance is lacking in several key areas. In particular, we want to call attention to both the buyout provisions and the unrestricted ability of the council to waive the ordinance.
Although the City Council’s 2019 ordinance did not, the consensus that the Inclusionary Zoning Committee reached included limited buyout provisions. In the committee’s compromise, developers could bypass building affordable units in a new development in certain specific ways, e.g. by building in-lieu affordable units in the same ward. In contrast, the administration’s 2020 ordinance has myriad buyout provisions, allowing developers to forego affordable units if they pay or build other community benefits (loosely defined, including things like parking garages); they can also substitute in-lieu affordable units in completely different parts of the city. It’s hard to see how the administration’s 2020 ordinance won’t perpetuate the economic segregation already plaguing our city.
Most concerning, though, is the waiver provision in the administration’s 2020 ordinance, which allows the City Council to waive the inclusionary zoning requirements for any given development. In a city, county, and state with a robust history of corruption, where politicians regularly take large contributions from real estate developers and affiliates, this waiver provision is a gaping loophole and a pay-to-play disaster waiting to happen. There was discussion during this ordinance’s first reading about retaining the waiver provision for specific scenarios like land-use legal settlements. However, as it is written, there are no restrictions on the use of this waiver provision. If it’s only intended for use in a limited set of circumstances, why not delineate those? As of now, the ordinance can be waived for any development by a simple majority of the City Council.
One doesn’t have to imagine a scenario where a slate of candidates in a municipal election is bankrolled by one or more major developers. This is already the reality in Jersey City. Meanwhile, residents are stretched thin as rents rise higher and higher, and are tired of empty promises. How are we supposed to trust that our politicians will even bother to hold their developer benefactors to the terms of this ordinance, instead of waiving it altogether?
With this waiver provision, the administration’s inclusionary zoning ordinance is so full of loopholes it might fall apart. Its passage would allow Mayor Fulop to claim a faux-progressive feather in his cap as he makes moves on the political ladder, while still allowing business as usual for the class of developers that double as his political donors.
The City Council should revisit the findings of the Inclusionary Zoning Committee and craft an ordinance that will meaningfully increase affordable housing and economic diversity. The people of Jersey City deserve a strong inclusionary zoning ordinance—not this one.
NJ-08 for Progress