Profile: Fair Housing Advocate’s Persistence Pays Off for New Jersey’s Needy
Activist lawyer battles Christie administration, resistance from towns, statewide pattern of segregation
Name: Kevin Walsh
Title: Associate director, Fair Share Housing Center.
Home: Merchantville, where he lives with his wife and three sons.
What he’s best known for: Fair Share Housing Center’s mission, according to its website, is to “defend the rights of New Jersey’s poor by monitoring, enforcing and expanding the Mount Laurel Doctrine.”
Gov. Chris Christie has made no secret of his dislike of the Council on Affordable Housing, established to oversee the state’s fair-housing laws. As part of his work, Walsh has spent a lot of time suing the Christie administration, both regarding affordable-housing laws and more recently to get information about aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Citing a winning record at all levels of law in New Jersey, and in particular at the state Supreme Court, the New Jersey Law Journal named him its Lawyer of the Year for 2012.
Adding to that winning streak, the Supreme Court late last month overturned COAH’s most recent housing rules and ordered the body to follow its previous formula to calculate housing quotas for all municipalities by the end of February 2014.
How he got there: A graduate of Catholic University in Washington, DC, and Rutgers Law School in Camden, Walsh got involved early on in public service work, taking a year off to work among the poor through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He did legal aid work in Virginia, and that experience had a tremendous impact on his outlook.
“It changed my sense of what I wanted to do,” Walsh said. “It exposed me to working at something I could enjoy and still make somewhat of a living.”
Walsh clerked for state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, who is now retired. He had not planned to work on the issue of housing, but met Peter J. O’Connor, founder and executive director of Fair Share, and joined the center at the end of his clerkship.
Why he is so passionate about his job: Walsh said it’s not housing, per se, that he is fervent about, but fairness. “My primary interest is in closing divisions,” he said.
While at Catholic University, he spent a week doing service in a small town in Mississippi and saw that “literally, there was a white side of the tracks and a black side of the tracks.” That made him realize that he had grown up on his own white side of the tracks – in Pennsauken, with Route 130 serving as the dividing line to separate it from Camden.
“Sometimes you have to go away to understand the place from which you came,” Walsh said.
He is trying to erase those lines by working to enforce the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which holds that every community must provide its fair share of housing to those of low income or moderate means.
“People are still uncomfortable talking about race,” he said. “We are one of the most racially and economically segregated states in the country.”
How he has been victorious regarding affordable housing: Representing Fair Share, Walsh led the recent effort to convince the Supreme Court that COAH’s “growth share” methodology of determining affordable housing requirements did not comport with state law or the Mount Laurel Doctrine. That decision affirmed the Appellate Division’s finding in 2010.
He also convinced that court to stop Christie from temporarily halting all actions by COAH.
Then, after Christie issued a reorganization plan that eliminated the council and transferred its duties to the Department of Community Affairs, Walsh and Fair Share won a Supreme Court ruling last July that not only reversed Christie’s reorganization plan, but also stated the governor does not have the right to reorganize any independent boards and commissions.
Walsh was also able to forestall the administration’s efforts to take an estimated $164 million in local funds earmarked for construction of affordable housing and won for municipalities the right to challenge COAH’s determinations of how much in unspent money would have to be turned over to the state, an issue still playing itself out.
In naming him Lawyer of the Year, the New Jersey Law Journal cited Walsh “For his successes as a fair-housing advocate, including his efforts to craft legislation that would further the Mount Laurel vision or to oppose measures that would undermine it.”
Walsh said he and Fair Share should not get all the credit. “His (Christie) promises to get rid of Mount Laurel are one of the things he has failed at; he has been blocked again and again and again. We played a big role in that, but it was also due to the work of the NAACP, smart growth and religious organizations.”
How he stays motivated when housing issues can take a long time to resolve: Patience. The first Mount Laurel ruling was issued in 1975, yet not all municipalities willingly provide low-income housing; the state Supreme Court took nearly a year after oral arguments involving COAH’s third-round growth share rules before ruling and that was three years after the Appellate Division first had struck down those rules. “It can be frustrating,” Walsh said. “Civil rights work has always been a marathon. It’s never been a sprint.”
Why he has adopted an aggressive style on housing issues: “I’m certainly a direct person,” said Walsh, of the in-your-face approach tone of press releases and emails the center sends out. Last month, in reaction to the Supreme Court’s growth share ruling, Walsh issued a statement critical of Christie, even though his administration did not write the rules the court overturned.
“The Supreme Court's decision stops Gov. Christie and his administration from allowing wealthier municipalities to exclude working families and people with special needs,” the statement read. “The Christie Administration has done everything it can to delay and block Mount Laurel from promoting development of affordable housing in New Jersey."
Last May, soon after COAH held its first meeting in years, Walsh and Adam Gordon, a Fair Share attorney, issued a similarly critical release of the council’s action to close the meeting to the public. It said, in part, “The Administration did not want the public to witness how it went about rounding up votes to begin the trust fund raid. In theory, DCA Commissioner Richard Constable said that an executive session was needed for ‘litigation,’ … But it's clear that when Constable forced the public to stand in the lobby, peering in through glass doors at the meeting for an hour, the discussion covered far more than litigation. While it is not possible to know with certainty what occurred behind the closed doors, the administration wanted as little sunlight in the room as possible when it did the dirty work.”
Walsh said that the center may be more direct than other groups in the statements it puts out, but it is always truthful and responsible. “In some ways, that matches with who I am … I feel comfortable telling it like it is.”
What you don’t know about him: Walsh can juggle. Three things at a time. “Lots of random things,” he said. “But not three chainsaws.”