What’s So Funny About Newark?

by Jonathan Rothwell | October 14, 2009

Conan O'Brien and Newark Mayor Cory Booker have been feuding on the air and online

The on-going “Tonight Show”/YouTube feud between Conan O’Brien and Newark Mayor Cory Booker will evidently reach its culmination Friday when Booker appears on the NBC broadcast.

In the interim it has spawned a spate of news stories, an “intervention” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and, earlier this week, was the focus of Bob Herbert’s New York Times op-ed column.

 In paraphrasing Conan, Herbert reports that he “threatened to form an alliance with the mayors of nearby municipalities, thus “creating a geographic toilet seat around the city of Newark,” making it possible to flush the city down the figurative bowl.”

The sad thing is, that’s kind of true. This scenario already exists in that the mayors of many nearby municipalities are allied against Newark in the worst possible way. All except the poorest towns--like East Orange--prohibit affordable housing anywhere in their jurisdictions. Despite the state Supreme Court’s famous Mt. Laurel decision, which declared that each town must have its “fair share” of affordable housing, zoning policies have managed to keep New Jersey highly segregated by race and class.

My analysis of a 2003 survey of land regulations by Cornell’s Rolf Pendall found that only 8 percent of NJ municipalities had no density restrictions, and 41 percent did not permit sufficient density anywhere in their jurisdiction to make multi-family housing possible. For example, Milburn, which shares Essex County with Newark and is eight miles away, has particularly restrictive zoning according to the survey; as a result, its African-American population is just 1 percent, and so is its poverty rate, according to Census figures. This is in a county that is 41 percent black with a 16 percent poverty rate.

Affluent jurisdictions occasionally allow developers to build a token home for the elderly and sometimes even an affordable housing project, but they rarely allow developers to decide when and where to build multi-family housing. Until the state passed the historic 2008 Fair Housing Act, these enclaves were actually allowed to pay poor places like Newark to take their formal “fair share” obligation, which encouraged the development of affordable housing in the very places where poverty was most concentrated.

According to data from the state overseer, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), from 1988 to 2008, over 10,000 housing units were transferred under this arrangement, of which 740 went to Newark, 1321 went to Trenton, and 347 went to Camden. They were sent from places like Princeton, Par-Troy, East Hanover and Berkeley Heights. To put this in perspective, just 36,000 new COAH certified affordable units were built over the same time twenty year period.

The deals were known as Regional Contribution Agreements, but after decades of advocacy, a coalition of non-profit organizations, religious, labor, and civic leaders overcame opposition from wealthy municipalities to eliminate this practice. Now, there are more binding rules to compel municipalities to build affordable housing, though there is nothing like what the market would demand in the absence of local restrictions.

Bob Herbert laments the concentrated poverty and Conan makes fun of it, but neither of them seems to understand the likelihood that it will persist unless affluent municipalities in the metropolitan area are forced to end anti-density housing practices. Booker’s admirable efforts to reform policies in Newark will be limited until these changes are made.

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