Ordinance would make affordable housing a requirement for abated development

By David Cruz

Everywhere you look in this boom town there’s a new luxury building going up. Whether you’re in one of the waterfront towers or a boutique apartment building, you know one thing: rents are sky high. You can pay well over $4,000 for a new two-bedroom downtown.

“In every ward I go in everyone finds it challenging,” said Councilwoman Joyce Watterman. “Like, in the Greenville section, think about it, years ago, rent in the Greenville section started at like $500 to $800. Now, in that section, it’s like up to $1,800 so for the people there it’s challenging. If you go to the Heights, people are paying $1,800.”

While the majority of the so-called affordable housing has been centered in the city’s Greenville section, Watterman says she wants to see affordable housing available citywide.

“People should have an option to live anywhere in the city, and so as a council person I felt obligated to start bridging the gap so people can have a choice,” she said.

So, the councilwoman is introducing an ordinance that will require any developer who gets a tax abatement to make 15 percent of its units affordable. That is, available to anyone the ordinance gives preference to: current city residents with an income 80 percent of the county median income.

In Jersey City for one person that’s $48,000. For a family of four, around $69,000. So, a one-bedroom would go for $1,290, a two-bedroom? About $1,600.

Still hard for a lot of working-class folks, the backbone of most neighborhoods. Riaz Wahid is a community activist who deals with housing issues. He says the ordinance is a modest start.

“Unfortunately, most of the people who work in New York and live in Jersey City, it’s easy for them. They come, sleep and go,” said Wahid. “But, on the other hand, those who contribute a lot to the city: fire, police, teachers and those starting their careers, thousands of people, we’d like them to have a place here.”

The city has had some success in securing affordable housing. One building a few blocks from the waterfront has 20 percent of its units set aside for affordable housing. But that’s just one deal with one developer.

This other building used a mix of city and state tax incentives to make 20 percent of its units affordable as well. The ordinance requires that the developers keep an inventory of affordable units, advertise their availability and also doesn’t let developers get away with simply contributing to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

“Part of the problem is that when they contribute to the trust fund based on the units, they only give $1,500 a unit, and we know that $1,500 is not enough money to build the unit,” said Watterman. “So we don’t want them to contribute; we want them to build the unit.”

Developers say they want to contribute to affordable housing but claim real estate is so expensive, that without heavy subsidies, their bottom line can’t take the hit. And incentive programs like the one that got this building funded, are no longer available. Several developers we reached out to declined to talk to us on camera. But, off the record, say that without these incentives, the city’s 15 percent mandate — right now limited to downtown — would make some think twice about investing here, to which one councilman says is not true.

“In the future, I don’t think a lot of the other areas are going to need abatements,” said Councilman Rich Boggiano. “I think Jersey City is sustainable on its own.”

Watterman’s ordinance will have its first reading at tonight’s meeting. There has been some behind the scenes lobbying by the real estate industry, but in an election year, with affordable housing a hot button issue with voters, it appears likely to pass.