Public input needed on affordable housing proposals

May 3, 2022

Sussex County Council should be commended for its attempt to address the area’s affordable housing crisis. However, this crisis is due, in part, to the county’s lack of action and foresight in facilitating positive and balanced growth throughout Sussex County, which has almost doubled in population since 2000. 

Year after year, the county collects considerable amounts of money from the realty transfer tax, yet invests little of it back into affordable housing for its workforce. Now – to address what it has failed to address adequately over time – the county is proposing a rental housing ordinance that, at first glance, seems to be a reasonable measure. The county is proposing higher-density housing near public transportation, provided that the developers agree to include affordable rental units. For doing so, the county will consider it by right, allowing developers to circumvent the public hearing process. 

County Councilman John Rieley, who introduced this proposal, describes the ordinance as market-driven, and one that gets government out of the way. But unfortunately, it also gets the public out of the way, employing direct government action that gives developers free rein to advance their proposed projects without public input. That is simply wrong. The council has not lived up to the aspirations of its own comprehensive plan. Consequently, and justifiably, the public doesn’t trust the council or the developers to do the right thing.

In 2018, when the comprehensive plan was passed and approved – with public input – there was a section in that document that addressed increasing and enhancing the area’s water quality. Yet four years later, we’re still debating the strength of a proposed buffer ordinance, even as our natural resources are being threatened. In 2008, there was an ordinance designed to help foster affordable housing through the Moderately Priced Housing Program (inclusionary zoning) based on the previous comprehensive plan. Fifteen years later, we’re still waiting for results from that ordinance. Affordable housing was again highlighted as a very real problem in 2018, yet it took four years for council to propose this latest solution to this ongoing issue? To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” 

If the county is truly concerned about affordable housing, then allow for that higher-density housing proposed in the ordinance, but not at the expense of public input on the process. Undoubtedly, the council will hear the NIMBY battle cry, “Not in my backyard!”  But council members shouldn’t let the NIMBY crowd sway them from doing what’s right – for the greater good and the balanced development of our communities.

Higher-density developments that create affordable housing will, ultimately, encourage investments into public transportation, minimize the amount of open space to be gobbled up by developers, and maximize quality of life for all residents. It’s for the teachers, the first responders, the therapists, the clerks, the hospitality workers, and all those folks who work in our community but can’t afford to live in our community. And if they can’t afford to live here, they can’t afford to work here. And that sad truth hurts our healthcare and education systems, along with our economy and quality of life. We need affordable housing to be a priority, because it impacts us all.

The No. 1 reason why the public voice cannot – and should not – be eliminated is because the council hasn’t earned public trust. Too often we see developments approved with little regard for our open space, our forests, wetlands and what makes Sussex County so unique. The council has not been a responsible steward of our environment. The council has not acted swiftly to address unintended consequences of the growth they have allowed under their watch. This ordinance gives the public no say, but gives council the green light to invoke the by-right rule, thereby once again placing the future of our communities in the hands of developers. 

Until the council and developers (who continue to profit) earn the public’s trust, the process must remain public. We look forward to the opportunity to fine-tune this ordinance for the benefit of all Sussex County citizens and their communities. 

Russ Huxtable is the vice president of Milford Housing Development Corp., a private nonprofit affordable housing developer, and Democratic candidate for senator in the 6th Senate District.
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