WESTFIELD — For Westfield, 2021 is proving to be an important year in meeting its court-mandated affordable-housing obligations.
During its May 25 meeting, the governing body introduced an ordinance that would authorize a financial agreement granting long-term tax-exemption status for real estate development firm Elite Properties of Warren for the construction of the sites outlined in the South Side Redevelopment Plan, known as Westfield Crossing.
The mixed-use property, for which the creation of 193 residential units is proposed, would include 32 units of affordable housing. The proposed Westfield Crossing Project, which requires a second and final vote after a public hearing to be held at the next council meeting on Tuesday, June 29, would be the town’s most significant affordable-housing project to date.
Each municipality, including Westfield, has an obligation under New Jersey’s constitution to provide realistic opportunities for affordable housing within their respective borders per a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in 1985 known as the Mount Laurel decisions, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
These projects are a result of the Union County Superior Court-approved settlement between Westfield and the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC), a non-profit advocating for the creation of affordable-low income housing within the state’s municipalities.
“This is happening, whether you like it or not,” said Mayor Shelley Brindle, speaking to The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times on May 25. “So, you might as well be in a position to partner with the Fair Share Housing Center to drive the outcome.”
Westfield currently has 59 units of affordable housing in different phases of development — spanning five projects throughout the town, according to Westfield’s 2020 Affordable Housing Status Report drafted by Town Planner Donald Sammet.
In addition to the 32 proposed units contained within the South Side Redevelopment Plan, the town’s projects include five units of affordable housing on West Broad Street, known as “The Parker”; nine units of affordable housing at 333 Central Avenue; five units at 201 South Avenue, known as “The Bentley” and eight affordable-housing units at 44 Myrtle and 304 Myrtle Avenue — two housing sites developed exclusively for special-needs adults.
Currently, Westfield has an obligation to provide at least 62 additional units of affordable housing based on a vacant land adjustment, a survey determining land available for residential development, noted Mr. Sammet.
“Our vacant-land analysis showed we had the space for 62 new affordable units,” said Mr. Sammet, speaking to The Leader and The Times on May 25.
The 62 units, however, is not a final figure, nor a quota signaling an end to the town’s obligation to provide affordable-housing opportunities.
As part of its court-approved settlement with FSHC, Westfield has to pass a zoning ordinance amendment, “requiring inclusionary development for any proposed residential development involving more than 5 units and at density of 6 units per acre or more,” according to the town’s 2020 Affordable Housing Status Report.
Municipalities create affordable-housing opportunities and development through “overlay zoning.”
“An overlay zone expands the zoning in designated underlying areas and permits an additional use in those areas,” according to the town website. “In the case of the affordable housing overlay zone districts, a property owner can continue to use the property as currently zoned, or develop the property with multifamily housing which would include an affordable housing component.”
The town’s current court-approved agreement with FSHC also includes an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a key facet of Westfield’s affordable-housing strategy meant to further opportunity for affordable-housing development.
“We created an account which was approved by the town, FSHC, and a local bank which established a trust fund,” Town Administrator James Gildea told The Leader and The Times on May 25.
Mr. Gildea explained that fees collected from developers are used to promote affordable housing, contribute to projects and also to offset costs involved in developing affordable housing.
“That fund has been an amazing opportunity for us, more so now than ever, because we have this ability to be proactive about things,” noted Mr. Gildea. “One example of this is The Arc of Union County.”
Mr. Gildea cited the town’s partnership with The Arc of Union County, a non-profit organization that advocates and provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities. The resources used from the Trust Fund helped to develop the two sites on Myrtle Avenue.
“The town was able to give them property the town owned, that was in our plan and that must be developed for affordable housing,” said the town administrator.
The money from the account further helped subsidize The Arc of Union County project at 44 and 304 Myrtle Avenue and resulted in affordable housing being built, noted Mr. Gildea.
Mr. Gildea joined Mayor Brindle in emphasizing the importance of educating the public, given the complex nature of affordable housing and the lengthy development time and hurdles projects must navigate before coming to fruition.