Affordable housing quotas up for debate

Staff Writer

 Kevin Walsh Kevin Walsh While last week’s long-awaited state Supreme Court decision was expected to eliminate much of the uncertainty surrounding New Jersey’s affordable housing program, stakeholders still disagree on how it will affect local residents and taxpayers.

The Sept. 26 decision, which gives the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) five months to establish new, more regionally based affordable housing requirements, was lauded by fair-housing and minority advocates who have lobbied for the changes for years.

Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Trenton-based Fair Share Housing Center, said the court’s ruling would ultimately prevent towns from blocking necessary affordable housing within their borders.

“This is housing that 25 percent of the state’s population is eligible for, simply by their income,” Walsh said during a press conference at the State House after the ruling was released. “It helps them take a step up by living in a place with thriving schools and lots of jobs.”

Attorneys representing the New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM), COAH and a number of towns argued against the changes before the Supreme Court last November.

Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo said he agrees with the court ruling, citing “chaos and misunderstanding” due to the state’s inability to define the municipal obligation to provide affordable housing.

“It’s causing all kinds of problems with municipalities that want to understand what their obligation really is,” Tarantolo said.

“We better go back to the drawing board. The state, the governor and the Legislature need to get their act together.” Middletown, which currently has a legally mandated affordable housing plan in place calling for the creation of hundreds of affordable units on vacant land throughout the township, has fought COAH’s quotas for years.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, former Middletown Mayor and current Township Committeeman Anthony Fiore said affordable housing requirements “blatantly disregard” local-level impacts to schools and taxpayer-funded infrastructure.

“It is clearly a mechanism to help builders and developers continue to destroy our open space under the guise of these affordable housing quotas,” he said.

The decision released Sept. 26 centered on the “Mount Laurel” doctrine — two Supreme Court rulings in 1975 and 1983 that sought to ban exclusionary zoning practices and foster the development of low- and moderate income housing.

In 1985, the state passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which laid out new affordable housing obligations for municipalities, created COAH and granted that agency “rulemaking and adjudicatory powers” to ensure developers would be granted a fair opportunity to build affordable units.

According to Walsh, those legislative changes led to the creation of 60,000 homes for low- to moderate-income families, seniors and people with special needs across the state.

Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia acknowledged this “limbo” in leveling COAH with a five-month deadline for revised regulations, saying “new rules cannot wait further while time is lost during deliberations on a new affordable housing approach.”

Under COAH’s relatively recent “growth share methodology,” affordable housing requirements are tied to a town’s development, meaning new affordable units must be made available every time new market-rate units are built.

Walsh and other critics said this allows wealthier towns to essentially block the creation of affordable units by preventing new development.

“Home rule thrived,” he said. “[Towns] felt accountable to their constituents and not to the people in the region who need homes.”

The new regulations, he said, will likely revert to past practices of basing housing requirements on projected future growth.

Towns situated in regions with jobs, transportation, malls and other infrastructure will have to “get out of the way” of residential development, he said, while environmentally sensitive areas will likely be exempt from new development.

Gov. Chris Christie has shared the NJLM’s sharp criticism of the state’s affordable housing laws, unsuccessfully attempting to abolish

COAH in 2012. Christie’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the Sept. 26 ruling.

The Supreme Court itself was divided on the issue, ruling in favor of LaVecchia’s decision in a 3-2 vote.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Helen Hoens said the majority was “wedded to the methodologies imposed in the past.”

LaVecchia’s decision left the door open for “creative” legislative remedies, in addition to any

COAH-sponsored changes.

NJLM President Janice Mironov said municipal and administrative officials are indispensable to the creation of a “workable, common-sense plan” and should have a seat at the table going forward.

“At the end of the day, our hope is that the Supreme Court decision today will provide a renewed opportunity for all the parties to come together as partners,” she said.

Michael McNeil, housing chairman of the state chapter of the NAACP, said superstorm Sandy and a lingering economic downturn have combined to create a severe affordable housing shortage throughout the state.

While criticizing state officials for failing to visit the Lakewood “tent city” and other examples of New Jersey’s housing problem, McNeil said he was cautiously optimistic about the court’s decision.

“Every town was supposed to build their fare share, and apparently a lot of them haven’t done that,” he said. “I’m satisfied to this point, but I want to see it work.”