Affordable housing in New Jersey: What some communities of color need from the Murphy administration | Opinion

Lt. Governor-elect Sheila Oliver introduced Governor-elect Phil Murphy at their victory party on November 7, 2017. Both Murphy and Oliver have an extensive track record working to empower communities of color and have promised to turn our state into a bulwark against extremist policies coming out of Washington.

New Jersey’s affordable-housing crisis has deep roots. It has been fed by long-standing exclusionary zoning practices inspired by a history of racism and a desire to exclude African Americans and Latinos from wealthier suburban communities.

We are hopeful Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov.-Elect Sheila Oliver will fight with us against these practices, which have made New Jersey one of the country’s most racially segregated states.

Murphy has served on the NAACP’s national board, and Oliver is a long-standing champion of robust fair-housing policies in the New Jersey Legislature. Both have an extensive track record working to empower communities of color and have promised to turn our state into a bulwark against extremist policies coming out of Washington.

The Murphy administration should strongly support the current fair-housing process as a centerpiece of its civil rights agenda.

This process, bolstered by two recent unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, is finally breaking down the structural racism and institutionalized segregation that has plagued our state.

More than 160 municipalities have already reached agreements with fair-housing and civil rights advocates. These settlements have cut through 16 years of Trenton gridlock. They enable the construction of thousands of homes in communities throughout New Jersey that will provide families with access to good schools and jobs. The court process is working and Murphy and Oliver should allow it to continue, while also taking other key steps to address affordability and segregation.

Both Murphy and Oliver should reject calls from a small group of opponents seeking to cement exclusion by reauthorizing the segregation payments known as Regional Contribution Agreements. RCAs were banned by the Legislature in 2008 because they permitted wealthy, predominantly white suburban towns to continue exclusionary policies while failing to lead to the construction of significant numbers of new affordable homes.

Rather than listen to voices echoing President Trump, we ask Murphy and Oliver to embrace a series of policies that will elevate fair-housing policies as a core part of their agenda – fulfilling a campaign pledge to address New Jersey’s structural inequality.

A proactive housing agenda must leverage the powers of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HFMA) to set state housing policies. Both agencies, which will operate under Oliver’s direction, can ensure that the state’s fair-housing laws work for every family.

The HMFA should create a web portal listing all available fair-housing units so families have a central point of access. And the agencies should require that all housing applications are translated into Spanish.

At the same time, the HMFA and DCA should work together to revitalize and strengthen mortgage programs for first-time home buyers and continue reforms to the Housing Choice Voucher program, popularly known as Section 8. It is imperative that vouchers administered by the state are available for families wishing to move to suburban communities or remain in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Even as Oliver revitalizes the state’s housing agencies, Murphy should bring the same sense of purpose to the Attorney General’s Office by reenergizing its Division on Civil Rights.

Murphy should nominate a director to that office who will use its sweeping powers under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination to fight against housing discrimination that prevents too many families of color from taking advantage of the new opportunities being created by the Mount Laurel process.

The Division on Civil Rights should focus on combating an array of entrenched practices, including: racial steering by real estate agents, the misuse of criminal background checks in rental applications, and discriminatory mortgage lending practices.

The Attorney General’s Office should also work with the DCA and HMFA to enforce federal requirements guaranteeing that minority-owned construction and professional service firms have equal opportunities to bid for work on federally funded housing projects.

And working with legislative leaders, the administration should advance legislation sponsored by State Sen. Ronald Rice to increase tenant protections. And it should also support proposals giving towns tools to convert foreclosed homes into affordable housing – a proposal repeatedly passed by the Legislature and supported by the state League of Municipalities but vetoed by Gov. Christie.

Advancing these commonsense proposals would help make the next administration  a national leader in the fight for fair housing – and doing so would cost little additional state funding at a time when state budgets are strained.

We look forward to working with our new partners in Trenton to bring down the racial and socioeconomic barriers dividing us. It’s time to build on the momentum of the successful Mount Laurel process and seize the opportunity to create a state that provides fair opportunities for tens of thousands of additional families.

Richard Smith is president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.

Christian Estevez is president of the Latino Action Network.  @LatinoAction