Assembly Housing Committee holds a contentious public hearing

The 45-year argument over New Jersey affordable housing got a good airing out Wednesday.

The fight pits municipalities, that want to protect their character, against builders, who want to build housing, and advocates who want to open up the suburbs to minorities, veterans and the disabled.

Mayor after mayor came before the Assembly Housing Committee to complain that housing developers are using the law to try gobble up their towns.

“A developer came in with one of these projects and they asked for a density that’s much more than we’re comfortable with, which would impact our town. Park Ridge has 9,000 residents, 3,500 doors. They said give us roughly 1,000 units, and if you don’t, we’re going to go to a judge and ask for 2,000 and we’re going to build affordable,” said Park Ridge Mayor Keith Misciagna. “That’s not what this affordable process was meant to do. It’s not meant to hold a gun to our heads.”

For years a body called COAH, the Council on Affordable Housing, determined a municipality’s fair share of affordable housing need. Then, COAH went moribund, and the decisions about allocations reverted to superior courts where they were in the 70s and 80s. Municipalities don’t like that.

“At this point I ask you to reinstate COAH immediately. Get it out of the courts. Stop the endless chain of litigation. Give towns a chance to breathe and save taxpayer dollars,” said former Bernards Township Mayor Al LiCata.

Mayors especially don’t like the builders’ remedy, which allows four market rate units to be built for every affordable unit a developer provides.

“We are required to build 306 affordable units, or approximately 1,530 total units, in a township that has a total of 3,300 units now. We have approximately 10,000 residents. In the course of the seven year period, our population will increase by 40 percent,” said Michael Viola, Colts Neck Township committeeman.

The New Jersey Builders Association sees a state full of municipal officials dragging their feet.

“Some of the ides we’ve heard today are worthy of real consideration. Some of them, frankly, are trying to move the ball backward 20, 30, 40 years to early-COAH processes and they don’t work. We’ve seen it not work for 15, 20 years now, which is why the Supreme Court wound up with the decision in the first place, and frankly which is why some of the settlement agreements now that are coming out are being reacted to so negatively by the towns because they’ve been absent for so long,” said Tom Troy, president of the New Jersey Builders Association.

Then there are the advocates, like Kevin Walsh of Fair Share Housing, who push to open up the suburbs in the name of integration.

“It is the fundamental problem in New Jersey that municipalities use their zoning to exclude. They use their zoning to exclude people with disabilities. They use their zoning to exclude African-American and Hispanic families. That is the fundamental problem,” said Walsh.

Walsh pointed to the demographics of the towns whose mayors testified.

“Where did the opposition come from today? Far Hills, not even 1 percent African-American. Montvale, 1 percent African-American. Colts Neck, 1.7 percent. Bernards, 2 percent. Park Ridge, 1 percent,” Walsh said.

Republicans Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick objected.

“You may, through your testimony, throw race into this discussion. That’s your prerogative. But I would submit that there are numbers of housing units that would be deemed overdevelopment,” Bramnick said.

“It’s a hot-button issue. Unfortunately, when you talk about different people from the NJ Builders, to the NAACP, to people talking about social justice, it’s going to be hot,” housing committee chairman Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly said.

Wednesday’s hearing was just meant to open up the conversation, said Wimberly. No legislation was considered, but that’s next.

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