Subprimes into Land Banks: A State Bill

An interesting proposal, close to home: S-1566 was proposed in the New Jersey Senate by Democrats Barbara Buono and Raymond Lesniak. The bill is similar to a proposal in Truthout that LT linked to last month: It would authorize the state to acquire foreclosed properties, in order to assemble an affordable-housing land bank. Properties in the program would be conveyed to qualifying buyers with 30-year deed restrictions on future sale and rental prices; allowable prices would be pegged to an affordable ratio of the region’s median income.

I think this proposal is a good step. It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the role that a durable stock of affordable housing could play in improving the economic health and social equity of New Jersey’s communities– or the price that the state has already paid in these areas for the absence of such housing. Since the 1970s, this state has followed the most affirmative approach to inclusionary housing in the nation. Yet, all of the statutory attempts to comply with the Mount Laurel doctrine have been inadequate to solve the state’s housing crisis. S-1566 strikes me as a modest but practical new way to approach the challenge of creating durable, affordable housing in competitive metropolitan land markets. Incidentally, the NSPs championed by HUD (under both Bush and Obama) have followed a similar approach, with deed restrictions and median-income ratios.

I would love to see an amendment to this bill that actively encouraged the formation of limited-equity co-ops, in order to develop high-density, privately-owned communities on some of the acquired lands. Obviously, this would work better in some places than in others. It worked well in New York City during the mid-20th century, and it could work well again in metropolitan New Jersey today. Another notable absence from the language of S-1566 is any reference to eminent domain powers. Presumably, the lenders wouldn’t bargain too hard for a lot of these properties, in the first place. However, the New Jersey Constitution of 1947 explicitly authorizes the use of eminent domain to acquire blighted parcels (N.J. Const. art. VII, § 3, ¶ 1), and I’d imagine that abandoned foreclosed properties would meet even the strict Gallenthin criteria for defining such conditions, if such an approach became necessary.

Update, 02/16: S-1566 passed unanimously in the N.J. Senate Economic Growth Committee on Thursday. It will now go before the full Senate, and its counterpart, A-2168, will be introduced in the General Assembly. Clearly there is a broad base of support for this measure in Trenton. In terms of finding bipartisan backing for a good idea, this is great news.

The main question I have now is about how the spending criteria will be developed. The Senate bill doesn’t spell out a set of conditions that must be met prior to property purchases. It may be that these matters are customarily developed on the ground, and not at the legislative level; I don’t know. But whether this issue should be explicitly worked out in the legislation, or somewhere else, I’d like to think a basic principle would be acknowledged with some specificity in the bill: Namely, that the amount paid to an institutional lender for any property acquired under this program must be limited to a price that ensures that the lender will be paid no more than a certain ratio of what the Corporation intends to ask for the eventual sale price of that property, pursuant to the affordability formula. Furthermore, reasonable projected costs for any necessary pre-occupancy repairs, upgrades, and legal work should also be subtracted from the maximum allowable purchase price under this program.

In most cases, I’d think that the right maximum ratio would be 1:1, minus costs, but there may be occasional situations where it’s worth taking a loss to acquire a particular property for a specific purpose. The point is that the state has leverage here: These are unsold, abandoned properties. Enacting language that exercises that leverage for the benefit of New Jersey taxpayers could greatly mitigate the potential for program losses, and quell public suspicions that a government program might overpay lenders to acquire low-value properties. In exchange for greater solvency and legitimacy, such language would likely result in at least two trade-offs: First, it would likely reduce the total number of properties in the program portfolio. Second, it would sharply reduce the number of program properties in expensive neighborhoods. But I think these outcomes would merely emphasize the limitations of this solution. At best, this program could be one more piece of a larger housing puzzle.