Montvale mayor says race ‘has nothing to do with’ affordable housing

Fault lines in New Jersey’s effort to provide affordable housing. At a recent hearing, the mayor of Montvale was among those called out by Fair Share Housing advocates for testifying against court-mandated high density, multifamily developments. Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali joins Michael Hill.

Hill: Please tell me, we know that this is a very complicated process to achieve affordable housing and to meet this mandate. What did Montvale do in terms of going to court, going through this process to meet this demand, and, on top of that, to build affordable housing and determine how many units you actually needed?

Ghassali: Sure, thanks for having me. So for the last 15 years or so, we went through round one, a round two and we built affordable housing. We even had a surplus. And then just this year we signed an agreement with Fair Share Housing and the court to build 550 affordable housing units. The whole thing in Montvale, we have about 3,000 units, so to do 550 — and that’s about 20 percent of the build out — that’s about 2,000 more units. So it’s almost going to double the size of our town. We had the Mercedes site, we had the A&P site, and we had the Sony site that they left in Montvale, so we had prime acres to be built. And, we have about 100 acres to be built out.

Hill: There are a lot of towns that are resisting this. How do you propose that this be fixed so that they can get on board, too?

Ghassali: To my knowledge, no one is saying no to affordable housing. There’s a genuine need to affordable housing. We all agree on that. It’s the process about density, where and how many is where the issue is.

Hill: There’s some towns that are resistant to this, though, and the Fair Share Housing Center — we spoke with Kevin Walsh and one of his concerns was that Montvale, for instance, is grouping itself in with other towns who are resisting some of these mandates. And he says it almost seems that there’s some complicity in supporting a resistance that seems to have a racial underpinning. What do you say to that?

Ghassali: That’s where the disconnect is. Race has nothing to do with this. Affordable housing is not for any one single race. Affordable housing is for all races. That’s where I have an issue with Mr. Walsh. And that’s why I sent him that letter, because he called Montvale a racist town for having 1 percent or less African-Americans. We are building. We have shovel in the ground right now as we speak. We are building 550 affordable units.

Hill: So why do you side with them — the other towns that are resisting?

Ghassali: Resisting the process. The process about going — we are being force-fed by the court and by Fair Share Housing on how many to build and the developers are supporting that. Case in point, we were sued by the Mercedes developer, and we said no for 350 units — total units. And they said, “If you don’t sign on, we will come back tomorrow and sue you for 1,000 units.” It has nothing to do with affordable housing, It’s about just building for the developers. We are in agreement. My signature and Mr. Kevin Walsh’s signature is on an agreement already to build 550. We have complied with all the mandates. That’s where my issue is with the whole process. It’s not resisting — it’s the process.

Hill: Do you have any advice to other towns, though, who are going through this and have not met the mandate as Montvale has?

Ghassali: It’s a state law. We have to build affordable housing. And my suggestion is to all the other towns that have not — about 180 have not signed on already — the remaining, they need to sign on. But we need to be in-sync on the density. We don’t want to double the size of one town and vacate one town. We don’t want to do social engineering, moving one group of people from one section of the state and moving it to a different section of the state. What is going to happen to the town that is now all vacant? We’re not helping anything.

Hill: What does affordable housing look like in Montvale? Montvale is a very well-to-do town. Northern part of the state, right on the New York line. In terms of price, what’s affordable?

Ghassali: Well, Montvale, an average house goes for about $570,000. The affordable housing based on the need, based on the families, based on the income differs, but you can’t tell which one is affordable and which one is not affordable. They’re all intermingled. And that’s what we decided — that we don’t want to have one section of only affordable housing. It’s all intermingled.

Hill: Was it tough achieving what you achieved in Montvale in terms of the public’s response to the building of these units?

Ghassali: Yeah, we had standing room only every single meeting. And their resistance was the density, and the timing and being force-fed — that you had to do this or else you go to court. So we voted no twice, and I was the tiebreaker twice. And the third time, the court said, If you don’t do it, I will do it for you. And, if the court did it for us, we lose all zoning rights. So we decided that we need to do this. And we went according to the plan of Fair Share Housing for each of the buildable lots and we complied with the mandate.