Jersey City Council adopts inclusionary zoning law despite public call for stronger ordinance

Dozens of public speakers called for the Jersey City Council to vote down its inclusionary zoning ordinance Wednesday night, citing “loopholes” that benefit developers, but the outcry fell on deaf ears.

In a 7-2 vote, the City Council adopted an ordinance that will require developers of certain residential projects that receive variances for use, density or height to set aside 20% of their total units for affordable housing.

Councilman-at-large Rolando Lavarro and Ward E Councilman James Solomon voted against the legislation.

Mayor Steve Fulop previously said the ordinance would take construction in the city to the next level and force developers to build more affordable housing. But critics have said the legislation provides too many loopholes for developers — a sentiment shared by more than 60 speakers during the four-plus hours of public comment.

“I believe this ordinance quite frankly sells out Jersey City residents and favors multi-million-dollar developers,” Akash Patel said during Wednesday’s virtual meeting. “It provides them with too many loopholes to either avoid building affordable units or eliminate that in tally.”

Under the adopted ordinance, developers are required to set aside 5% of units in their buildings for affordable housing. They can forgo the remaining requirement if they building affordable units elsewhere in the city, make payments to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and/or offer a community giveback, like a school or recreation center.

Lavarro, who at first requested his colleagues reject the ordinance, proposed several amendments to close some of the provisions that he and others see as loopholes.

Lavarro’s amendments would have increased the onsite affordable housing minimum from 5% to 15% for developments in Downtown Jersey City and closed the “parking deck loophole,” which he says gives developers an out if they building a parking garage and other community benefits.

Most of the amendments were voted down, but an amendment requiring developers to pay for “rounding” calculations passed unanimously. Under that provision, when the inclusionary zoning formula requires a developer to build 25.4 affordable homes, the developer must pay for the “.6” in addition to building the 25 homes.

During the vote, Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh said he was concerned if they didn’t pass an ordinance now, it would be another two years before another comes up for a vote. The legislation has been in the works for 18 months.

“We have been working on this for over a year,” Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano said. “We could look forward to the next six months to change certain things. And as I said, it is time to pass this and get it started. We can always make changes in the future.”

The passage of the legislation comes as more than a third of Jersey City households are defined as “cost-burdened,” meaning they use more than 30% of their income to pay for housing, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Households with a combined annual income of no more than 80% of the city’s median income are eligible for affordable housing. In Jersey City, the median income is $65,923.

Jerome Choice, a longtime Ward F resident said the inclusionary ordinance is not strong enough

“What we are seeing in our community and the community at large is that a lot of people who are native and who have been a longtime resident of Jersey City cannot afford to live in this city,” Choice said. “We need an ordinance that would allow more people of lower and middle income to be included in housing.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of building up a city, but there’s a lot of hard-working families that were put out of the downtown area because of the re-gentrification.”

Rob Menendez, son of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a possible Jersey City mayoral candidate in 2021, said the ordinance comes up “short by every available metric.”

“Judging by your expressions and body languages this evening, you all know that as well,” Menendez said. “Please do not resign yourself to passing this ordinance because it is what the mayor wants … this is not what the people of Jersey City want and you can do something about it tonight.”

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