On the surface it may seem like a good deal for all concerned. Some even refer to such an agreement as a "gem" because it allows the state to implement a controversial New Jersey Supreme Court decision that, in 1975, found Mount Laurel zoning practices had intentionally locked out the working poor. It, and a follow-up court order in 1983, instructed local governments to provide a "fair share" of affordable homes, relative to each community's developable land and growth rate, which is reassessed every six years.
Critics of the practice, however, say it has created a type of economic caste system among municipalities and, because of the practice in some towns, virtually no new affordable homes for families are being built in South Jersey.
"If the words 'fair' and 'share' mean anything at all, RCAs have to be illegal," said Kent R. Pipes, president of the Affordable Homes Group, an umbrella organization for several nonprofit organizations working on housing issues in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties.
Pipes' dream is to bring a class-action lawsuit against the state for creating a program that he likens to the separate-but-equal education laws that were legislated out of existence during the civil rights movement.
"It's very hard to prove intent, unless someone says, 'I don't want to rent to black people,' " Pipes said, citing federal laws that prohibit discrimination in intent or effect in regard to the sale, rental and financing of real estate. "But nobody says that. They just use discriminatory practices. That's exactly the principle behind regional contribution agreements. They deny opportunities to poor minorities wishing to live in places like Moorestown."
As the first Mount Laurel decision enjoys its 25th anniversary, about $131.7 million has been paid to transfer 6,730 affordable-housing units to date, according to state data.
RCAs were a compromise provision added to the Fair Housing Act of 1985, which created the state Coalition on Affordable Housing to implement the Mount Laurel decisions.
Supporters say the program works because it restricts communities to transferring no more than 50 percent of its state-mandated obligation.
"The RCA is working well and is one of the hidden gems of the whole Mount Laurel process," said Robert W. Burchell, a professor at the Center for Urban Policy Research, a think-tank in North Jersey. "It would seem like a selling out, unless you understand the reality. The entire process couldn't work without it."
According to 1999 data, 233 of the state's 276 communities required to provide affordable housing under the Mount Laurel principles have met or are in the process of meeting the state coalition's rules. For the remaining 43 local governments, their fair-share obligations are administered by the courts because they failed to meet the state requirements.
"Where there is wealth, there should be opportunities for low- and moderate-income people to live," said Sidna B. Mitchell, deputy director for the Coalition on Affordable Housing. She said the state's policies are designed to create affordable housing where economic growth is inspiring new jobs and homes.
"The 1985 law was a compromise brought about by wealthy communities, but also by urban legislators concerned about the viability of cities and urban flight to the suburbs," she said.
Since 1985, the coalition's rules have encouraged the construction of 23,100 low- to moderate-income units, according to its 1999 annual report. Zoning has been put in place for another 14,600 units. And nearly 10,000 units have been rehabilitated.
Most municipalities are meeting their state obligations by rehabilitating deteriorating homes and building homes for the elderly. They also are creating zoning for family dwellings. While the coalition's rules require towns to provide affordable housing, they do not force towns to actually build the homes.
"In South Jersey, towns are just now realizing the impact of their affording-housing obligation," said Shirley M. Bishop, executive director of the coalition. She said new-home construction will eventually follow.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Arnold Cohen, of the New Jersey Affordable Housing Network. "The intent of [the Mount Laurel decisions] is obviously to build housing, but it's not being implemented in that way."
And the result is fewer opportunities for lower-income people to live in the communities that have better schools and jobs, he said.
"On the other hand," he said, "the program provides much needed funding for housing rehab in urban communities."
"I don't see how there's a downside," said Robert H. Glass, Pemberton Township business administrator. Evesham intends to pay Pemberton $200,000 to take 20 units of its obligation. And in 1991, Florence Township paid Pemberton $1.5 million to accept 103 units.
"We're in the process of trying to get others," Glass said. "We're taking properties owned by taxpayers in the township and restoring them. It improves the community at no cost to us."
Gloucester City has three regional contribution agreements, two with Evesham for more than $1 million and one with Washington Township, Gloucester County, for $740,000.
"Our program is total rehab of owner-occupied dwellings," said City Administrator Patrick Keating. "So there's no new construction, so far." He said the program has more than 100 projects under way and more than 130 families on a waiting list.
But as much as the program helps poor communities, some officials say it fails to meet the goals of the Mount Laurel decisions.
Moorestown, for example, has a 691-home affordable housing obligation. Subtract 156 from that total because of a 78-unit apartment-renovation project that earns a 2-to-1 credit with the state. Subtract 132 because of 99 senior-citizen apartments, which earn 11/3 credits per unit. And shave off another 85 units for preexisting affordable housing.
The remaining new units that would have been imposed on Moorestown, 279, is the exact number of units sold to Mount Holly and Beverly City through RCAs.
"In other words, they don't have to build even one new affordable home," Pipes said, calling the Moorestown example particularly tragic because just last year the affluent community of about 18,000 residents had planned to build 300 new, affordable homes. The plan was scrapped in favor of the RCA sale.
"The RCA program offers no risk," said Jack Terry, Moorestown township manager. "For $20,000 per unit, you can meet your obligation."
The problem, says William Harris, executive director of Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development Inc., is that rents and mortgages are so high in Moorestown that many families are forced to move out or pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
"We have to turn people away," Harris said of his project, which helps families of modest income find affordable homes in Moorestown. Of 131 families that sought help through the group last year, he said only 12 were placed. "There is a definite shortage."