Arnold Cohen is the senior policy coordinator for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. The Network is one of several community partners that have been working with the RPA for the past three years to help inform our work on the fourth regional plan for the New York metropolitan region. We interviewed Arnold to obtain his views on that partnership.
ML: Racial and economic justice have been central to this partnership, and fighting for racial and economic justice presents different challenges in different settings. Can you talk about strategies HCDNNJ uses to promote racial and economic justice in NJ?
AC: Critical to racial and economic justice is people having an affordable home in a place that is thriving. So, our work is all in terms of making cities better places for lower-income people to live. We passed legislation to give cities the tools of addressing abandoned properties. We’ve passed legislation, the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit, so that nonprofits can get the dollars to be able to implement the vision of the people who live and work in a community and plan for what that community should be. We’re working on expanding that program so that it can include more communities throughout New Jersey. We’ve worked closely with Fair Share Housing to ensure that places outside the cities that have good schools, that have good transportation also have to have affordable homes within their communities. That’s a process working through the courts right now; we’ve worked hard to make sure that the legislature doesn’t undo that court decision.
So, it’s a combination; it’s really allowing people who are low-income to have of choice of where they live, in a place that they can thrive — be that in a city (because we’re making cities better places) or in the suburbs because people are now allowed to have a place they can afford to live in a community that has good schools, recreation, etc. I’d like to see a headline in 5 years something to the effect of: “We’ve moved beyond gentrification, and that cities are thriving places for people of all incomes to live”.
ML: How has HCDNNJ changed as a result of partnering on the fourth regional plan?
AC: I think it’s made us more aware of the connections between affordable homes, good transportation, climate change and health. Our membership conference this year is going to be a day and a half, and the first half day will be spent on “Healthy Homes.” So, it’s realizing that a critical piece of housing and community development is health, in terms of the work that RPA has done showing your health is determined by the zip code in which you live. So, that connectivity becomes very important.
ML: What is your biggest priority for RPA to consider in the fourth regional plan?
AC: I think that the biggest request is to look at key places to implement the fourth regional plan on the ground. Where the rubber meets the road in Newark, NJ or Morristown, NJ, what do we have to do to implement the fourth regional plan, and for RPA to play a role within those communities in making those things happen– whether on issues of the environment, or transportation or affordable homes. It’s one thing to have something in the plan, and another thing to have it implemented on the ground in places like New Jersey and beyond New York City. Some people hear “RPA” and they think “New York City.”
ML: What would your advice be to urban planners trying to incorporate underrepresented voices?
AC: It’s really important to look at community plans that the community agrees upon and take them seriously. It’s important to make sure that, if you are doing new projects where you are consulting with the community, that you use the array of existing community leaders that are there as your consultants. Don’t bring in somebody from New York or California as that middle person, but let’s help grow those nonprofits that are there. Use them as your consultants. Use them as your voice.
Urban planners are privy to a lot of information. So if they have something come across their desk that is affecting the community, they should speak to folks in that community and say “do you know this is happening? You might want to get people here at this meeting or that meeting, because the fate of your community is being decided at this point,” rather than waiting later on until that public hearing is being held, and [the project] is a fait accompli.