1999 Winner
State of New Jersey
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards
New Jersey

Throughout the United States, the outdated building codes of cities and states hindered the renovation of existing structures. Building owners found that the requirements for rehabilitated building were often identical to those for new construction, hence often unrealistic and impossible to meet, which in turn discouraged investment in older structures.

In New Jersey, the "25/50" rule further complicated the issue by designating different standards for rehabilitation projects depending on their cost; the greater the investment in the renovation, the greater the code expectations. These requirements often unnecessarily expanded the scope of work and required the owner to improve portions or features of the building that were neither unsafe nor in disrepair. The "25/50" rule resulted in wary owners who avoided extensive investment in their property. Renovators found themselves further frustrated by the inconsistency with which inspectors enforced codes. The State's inner cities suffered the most from the resulting lack of investment in the old housing stock, indirectly leading to a lack of affordable housing and extensive suburban sprawl.

In 1995, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs' Division of Codes and Standards appointed a team of experts to examine the current building codes section by section and ultimately create an entirely new code for rehabilitation work. The resulting user-friendly Rehabilitation Subcode contained requirements tailored specifically to work performed on existing structures. New Jersey became the first state in the United States to distinguish building codes for new and existing buildings.

The Rehabilitation Subcode replaces rigid bureaucratic regulation with common sense standards to maximize safety of rehabilitated buildings with the underlying rule of do no harm; each building must be as safe after the project as it was before the project was undertaken. The requirements are based not on the cost of the project but rather on the nature of the construction with six increasingly extensive categories of work: repair, renovation, alteration, reconstruction, change of use and an addition. Unlike earlier codes, all regulations are in one place, written in easy-to-read language. The instructions are compiled in a "cookbook" format with "recipes" for each type of rehabilitation project, providing several options for owners to meet basic standards of safety and structural integrity. With the exception of a total building reconstruction, the requirements neither extend nor increase the scope of work. If additional work seems necessary, the goals are to achieve a safe building, not to match on the standards of new construction. To keep up to date with new technologies and advances in building safety, the Department of Community Affairs annually receives and considers suggestions from those involved in the rehabilitation industry.

Nonprofit housing advocates, code officials, building departments, developers and design professionals all assert that the Rehabilitation Subcode has made a difference in returning investments in older structure. Estimates indicate that the new subcode saves between 10 and 40 percent off the cost of redeveloping old buildings. Due to this reduction in construction costs, government affordable housing programs and nonprofit housing programs are now able to generate more dwelling units for the same amount of money.

>Within the first year that New Jersey adopted the subcode, the amount of rehabilitation work in dollars increased by 42 percent in the State's ten largest cities. In Jersey City alone, total renovation spending rose by $40.5 million, or 83.5 percent. This huge, encouraging reinvestment in existing structures holds the potential to revitalize the State's inner cities and reduce suburban sprawl by providing affordable housing options with existing resources rather than unnecessarily expanding development into open spaces.

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