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Fate of State Affordable Housing Funds on COAH Agenda Today

Disbanded council meets for first time in two years as Christie again seeks to divert money to balance state budget.

The New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing is scheduled today to hold its first meeting in more than two years, with the council being asked to try to take at least $142 million – though probably more -- in local affordable housing trust fund dollars away from municipalities.

The Appellate Division of Superior Court last August stopped the state Department of Community Affairs from taking money in municipal funds to create low- and moderate-income housing, saying only COAH had the right to do so.

The council hadn’t voted because Gov. Chris Christie abolished it, effective August 29, 2011.

That reorganization, which the appellate court reversed two months ago, and the taking of the municipal housing funds, are two of three COAH-related challenges currently before the state Supreme Court. The third is the question of new affordable-housing obligations themselves.

Today’s meeting, at 9:30 a.m. at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency office in Trenton, was announced late last Friday and was advertised as a special meeting.

After electing officers and approving the minutes of its last meeting – held March 22, 2011 – the council is expected to give staff the authority to act on 90 municipal affordable housing-related waivers, fee ordinances and spending plans, and to set the income limits to qualify for low- and moderate-income housing for the current year and last year.

The major item on the agenda involves the affordable housing trust funds, which the Christie administration again is trying to use to help balance the current state budget. The budget originally had anticipated $200 million in local trust fund dollars going into the general fund. Last July, DCA released data showing that amount to be $142 million. The Fair Share Housing Center, based in Cherry Hill, got the appellate division to prevent DCA from taking the money because only the council itself had the authority to do so.

“The court injunction gave him (Christie) two choices, neither of which he wanted,” said Adam Gordon, a Fair Share attorney. “Now he wants the money so badly he is willing to forgo his feelings against COAH and have them meet.”

The current amount the state may take is unclear, as DCA has not provided an updated list of funds. A spokeswoman did not return a request for comment yesterday.

Some municipalities may have spent their trust fund money, or signed contracts committing to spend some of that money, but other funds likely have sat dormant for more than four years, reaching the point where the state could seek to seize them. A state law provides that money municipalities have not committed to spend within four years can pass to the state’s own affordable housing trust fund, although the budget would put it into the general fund.

Nina Arce of the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ said that $80 million -- more than half of the original amount the state wanted to seize -- is being held in funds earmarked to build affordable housing in the nine counties hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy.

It is unclear whether COAH’s meeting today will be the first meeting of a revived council, now believed to include only half of the dozen members it is supposed to have, or simply a one-time event designed to get money the state wants to help balance the budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. Housing advocates suspect it is the latter.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities is also interested in the issue, having argued that many towns did not use their trust funds within four years because of the uncertainty surrounding COAH and its most recent affordable housing rules, which the appellate division struck down in October 2010.

The DCA sent letters to municipalities last June, asking them to give their housing funds to the state. Municipal officials and housing advocates objected, saying COAH had never passed rules governing the local funds.

State officials have said towns can seek approval to spend their and should have been all along – less than half the $258 million in the funds, which comes from development fees, had been spent as of last July. Four municipalities – Marlboro, Monroe, North Brunswick and Mount Laurel – had more than $5 million in unspent funds. The agenda for today’s meeting includes 56 spending plans or plan amendments.

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