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Who Can Solve New Jersey’s Affordable-Housing Conundrum?

Gov. Murphy hasn’t made affordable housing a priority, but he’s giving the closing keynote at the League of Municipalities annual conference, and local leaders — among others — are looking for guidance

Phil Murphy
Gov. Phil Murphy

Affordable housing hasn’t been a top priority for Gov. Phil Murphy during his first year in office, but today he will address a convention of mayors and other local-government leaders who consider it a primary concern.

What to do about affordable housing — and legal obligations that many communities are facing to create it — came up over and over during a legislative forum that was held in Atlantic City yesterday as part of the annual convention of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

While the problem isn’t a new one, many of the local leaders suggested they are reaching a breaking point, as prolonged inaction in Trenton over the past several years has pushed the issue into the courts. There are also growing fears that Murphy, a Democrat, is content to just maintain the status quo.

“We’re out of time here,” Deptford Mayor Paul Medany said during the legislative forum. “I’m in court right now, and a lot us are in mediation with our numbers.”

Letter of the law on affordable housing

In New Jersey, the process of determining municipal affordable-housing obligations is spelled out in the Fair Housing Act, signed in 1985 and amended in 2008. There used to be an agency called the Council on Affordable Housing that was established in the wake of a series of state Supreme Court rulings under what’s known as the Mount Laurel doctrine that found all municipalities have a constitutional obligation to provide their fair share of homes affordable to those of limited means. Municipalities would draft housing plans spelling out where they would permit construction of enough low-cost housing — usually in conjunction with market-rate units — to meet the local obligations COAH had set.

Elected officials and citizens often complained about the process, saying the quotas COAH had calculated were unreasonable and that there was not enough room in a given community to accommodate all the units. There have also been accusations of racism levelled at the leaders of communities that have resisted living up to their housing obligations over the years.

The issue eventually ended up back in the courts after former Gov. Chris Christie tried to eliminate COAH but was ultimately thwarted by the state Supreme Court. Now state Superior Court judges are in charge of the process — more than 15 years after the last valid rules expired — and municipalities have been seeking court approval for housing plans. They are often challenged by Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based nonprofit that has been the lead group pushing for the construction of affordable homes. To date, more than 200 municipalities have agreed to housing obligations through this process, and some have even begun building on low-cost homes, according to Fair Share.

High cost of going to court

But relying on the courts means towns whose primary source of funding is local property taxes have to hire costly attorneys who specialize in affordable-housing law to represent them. Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith described it yesterday as having “the court hovering over you.”

“Can you not just take some of the bills in the Senate and the (Assembly), put them out there and let us start discussing?” Smith asked the panel of legislative leaders, which included Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), and top Republicans.

The last substantial action by lawmakers was more than seven years ago, when they passed a compromise bill that was ultimately vetoed by Christie. Among other elements, the vetoed bill would have established a modified-growth share system, requiring municipalities to ensure that 10 percent of all residential units in most housing developments are affordable. But Christie said it would have created something worse than the system in place at the time.

Looking back, Senate Deputy Minority Leader Robert Singer (R-Ocean) suggested yesterday that the Christie administration’s rejection of the compromise bill was a big mistake.

“We had a way to fix this, and they wouldn’t do it,” Singer said. “That is directly on his shoulders, because we would have solved this problem.”

During another part of the discussion, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said many in leadership positions today are happy to have the issue being decided by the courts since it shifts the blame for what are generally unpopular decisions onto unelected judges.

“If the majority in the Legislature starts assigning numbers, then all of a sudden, they’ve got the responsibility to answer to (local officials),” Bramnick said.

Don’t look to the Legislature

The outlook for any new legislative remedy remains uncertain, as one of the proposals favored by many Republicans is the reinstatement of so-called regional contribution agreements, or RCAs, appears to be a nonstarter with majority Democrats. The RCAs allowed towns to effectively pay their neighbors to take on a portion of their housing obligation.

Sweeney, speaking to reporters after the forum ended, said the local officials deserve some responsibility for where the affordable-housing issue is today because “they fought it instead of trying to figure it out.” But he also said he’s willing to work with Republicans and the local officials on establishing another compromise.

“The answer is not RCAs, it’s not just RCAs. If you want to come back with a game plan that we can sit down and talk about, let’s do it,” Sweeney said.

Murphy, who took over for the term-limited Christie earlier this year, will also be part of the discussion. He has not made affordable housing a first-year priority; issues like economic policy, mass transit, and gun reform have taken center stage. But he did highlight the role of affordable housing in a broader economic plan that was laid out during a major policy speech in Nutley last month.

Some local officials suggested yesterday that Murphy is among those who are content to have the issue resolved through litigation. No one from the governor’s office commented on that assertion when asked for a response by NJ Spotlight yesterday, but Murphy will have an opportunity to weigh in today since he is the keynote speaker for the convention’s closing luncheon.

Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, suggested the affordable-housing question is ripe for an answer as another round of housing obligations will soon be due.

“Is the court process the model, because it’s unacceptable, plain and simple,” Cerra said.

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