CRANFORD — As affordable-housing deadlines draw ever nearer, municipalities across New Jersey are struggling to reconicile their state-mandated obligations against the needs of their own communities. In Cranford, Mayor Kathleen Miller-Prunty and other local officials are stepping forward to demand action and accountability from the state’s highest office.
Last month, Mayor Prunty, along with representatives from nine other municipalities (Bordentown, Chatham, East Hanover, Egg Harbor, Freehold, Mahwah, Montvale, Readington and Sayreville), signed off on official communication to Governor Phil Murphy asking him to appoint new members to the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) in accordance with the New Jersey Fair Housing Act (FHA).
In the letter, dated June 10, the municipal alliance, represented by attorney Jeffrey Surenian of Surenian, Edwards and Nolan, writes, “Unfortunately, the COAH Board ceases to exist because no Governor fulfilled his or her statutory obligation to appoint members to the COAH Board for at least six years — and the FHA limits the term of each Board member to six years (See N.J.S.A. 52:27D-305). The failure to appoint COAH Board members in accordance with the requirements of the FHA have completely undermined the policies our Legislature has sought to advance through the enactment of the FHA.”
The history of affordable housing in New Jersey is a long and complicated one, Mr. Surenian said, adding that, “so far, despite the best of intentions, no one has been able to get it quite right.”
In March 1975, in a landmark case known as Mount Laurel I, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower trial court decision that was intended to stop municipalities from shutting out residents with lower incomes through exclusionary zoning practices. It has since largely been regarded as one of the nation’s most sweeping housing decisions. The Mount Laurel doctrines, as the decision came to be known, went through several iterations over the course of the coming years, each of which required municipalities to commit to the creation of a specified number of affordable-housing units by a certain date.
Then, in 1985, the Legislature enacted the Fair Housing Act in response to trial judges who had been known to impose excessive Mount Laurel responsibilities on municipalities and developers.
Though the FHA was drafted with the intention of creating more responsible state oversight and cut down on costly lawsuits brought on by developers, Mr. Surenian said it also inadvertently, “trampled on the rights of the municipalities to decide how best to satisfy their housing responsibilities.”
The FHA also created the Council on Affordable Housing, a state-appointed oversight committee which, according to information provided by the state of New Jersey, “facilitates the production of sound, affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households by providing the most effective process to municipalities, housing providers, nonprofit and for-profit developers.”
COAH was charged with implementing a variety of policies established by the FHA, including the imposition of “realistic fair share responsibilities.”
“The Legislature required the Governor to appoint members to the COAH Board on a bipartisan basis with representation from the major interest groups — including municipalities,” Mr. Surenian said in a recent press release. “Unfortunately, COAH stopped doing its primary job — adopting regulations to implement the FHA. This forced the Supreme Court to turn implementation of the FHA back to the Courts.”
Ever since, Mr. Surenian continued, oversight at the state level has been “very inconsistent.” In fact, no governor has appointed new members to the board since Gov. Chris Christie tried to abolish COAH in 2013.
“As a result of the absence of a diverse COAH Board implementing the policies the Legislature established, we have had trial judges deciding the rules with which municipalities must comply instead of the entity the Legislature created to implement its policies,” Mr. Surenian said.
After nearly a decade of improper oversight and delays, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced in January that municipalities would need to retroactively act on 16 years of accrued housing responsibilities. And, the decision announced, they would have to do it quickly.
Municipalities can meet their housing obligations by requiring that any new developments include affordable housing. The costs of building those units — which often constitute 20 percent of the development — are subsidized by the market-rate housing. Other options include redeveloping existing housing stock, or seeking tax credits for a fully-affordable development.
But the court’s most recent ruling did not define exactly how many homes each community owed, a regulatory gap that has led to ongoing town-by-town negotiations. The sweeping decision and its new obligations have left many communities, including Cranford, struggling to find the right way forward.
“The time has come to reconstitute COAH so that COAH can do the job the Legislature assigned to it: to establish the rule with which municipalities must comply and to approve affordable-housing plans consistent with those rules,” Mr. Surenian said.
In speaking to the letter drafted to Governor Murphy in June, Mayor Prunty said, “This was an important step by the township which has faced developer lawsuits and been wrestling with difficult decisions on redevelopment to meet its affordable-housing obligations. We respect the intent and need for housing options but the time has come for New Jersey to address affordable housing in a fair and equitable manner and respect towns, like Cranford, to decide the best way to satisfy its obligations.”
In another move to preserve local control, the Cranford Township Committee recently passed a resolution in opposition to a pending senate bill (S-2103) that would require local planning boards to approve applications for mixed-use developments in business parks and shopping malls. The primary purpose of the bill is to provide options for vacant or struggling business parks and increase the state’s housing stock. “This Bill completely undermines and overrides Cranford’s ability to decide what is in the community’s best interest and manage our own growth by requiring our Planning Board to approve applications for mixed-use projects. It is a workaround of our own planning and zoning regulations and Master Plan,” Mayor Prunty said. The New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, of which Mayor Prunty is a board member, also have raised objections to the bill.
While municipal obligation may be at the center of the affordable-housing debate, Amy Wagner, director of economic development for Union County, said legitimate need should not be buried under bureaucratic inconsistencies.