AREA — As this year’s legislative sessions tick down to a close, state Democrats are working to push through new legislation that would effectively redefine the way New Jersey looks at affordable housing.
On Monday, Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) joined Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) in showing support for a new, 68-page bill that would effectively sunset the now-defunct Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) in exchange for new regional oversight and an updated algorithm that would allow municipalities to more definitively determine their affordable- housing obligations.
“For far too many people, the American dream of home ownership — which represents generational wealth — has been more fantasy than reality,” said state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Our objective here is to bring that full circle so that everyone, no matter where they live, no matter where they come from, can find a home here in the State of New Jersey.”
The COAH, comprised of 12 gubernatorial appointees, was established by the New Jersey Legislature in response to the Fair Housing Act of 1985 and a series of New Jersey Supreme Court rulings known as the Mount Laurel doctrine. By definition, the council was tasked with establishing housing regions, estimating the need for low/moderate-income housing across the state, allocating fair share quotas and reviewing municipal plans to fulfill these obligations.
As developer lawsuits and municipal calls for aid continued to pile up around the state, however, the council’s efficacy, if not its authority, notably waned. The council was officially declared “moribund” — effectively, dead — by the Christie Administration in 2013.
Since then, all matters related to affordable housing — from plan reviews, oversight and implementation, to developer lawsuits and legal challenges — have been relegated to the lower courts.
Last year, more than a dozen municipal leaders, including representatives from Cranford, Bordentown, Beach Haven, Egg Harbor and Mahwah, filed suit against the state in an effort to force Governor Phil Murphy to re-instate the COAH and fill its numerous vacancies.
“These [affordable-housing] obligations don’t take into account the town as a whole,” then-Cranford Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty said when the lawsuit was filed. “While I feel strongly that we should be meeting our obligation and doing it well, there are also some logistical considerations that need to be taken into account. This town is only 4.4 square miles, with a population of over 23,000 people, and not a lot of developable land. This is an immensely complicated issue, and we need proper oversight to handle it properly.”
In a legal response dated March 27 of this year, however, Attorney General Matt Platkin argued that not only had the COAH proven ineffectual as a functional oversight committee, but that neither the state nor its highest office was under any obligation to reinstate it.
According to information provided by the state, the new bill, co-sponsored by Senator Singleton and State Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (DMiddlesex), would provide better, more effective guidance to municipalities by establishing regional mediation panels that would “quickly and efficiently arrive at the amount of housing needed and where it should be built in each municipality.”
If approved, the new legislation also would provide stronger protections against developer lawsuits and help to streamline the development process.
“Affordability has been the cornerstone of the efforts we have taken in the Legislature to address the challenges our residents face every day in New Jersey,” said Senate President Scutari. “By taking this significant step today, we aim to preserve and develop more affordable housing in the state. This bill marks a crucial stride towards making housing in New Jersey more accessible and more affordable for all of New Jersey’s residents.”
And while New Jersey has managed to make some headway under the current court-ruled system in recent years, lawmakers say the state is still coming up short.
“Although New Jersey has doubled its supply of affordable housing over the last eight years, we still remain over 200,000 units short,” Senator Singleton said. “While this proposal will not address all of the barriers to affordable-housing development, it will streamline the process and ensure that towns are in compliance with the obligations established by the courts. Expanding access to affordable housing must continue to be a priority, as it is needed now more than ever.”
The bill is being introduced in advance of the next round of municipal affordable-housing obligations, which begins on July 1, 2025.
With less than three weeks left in this year’s lame-duck legislative session, however, lawmakers will have to act quickly if they do not want to see the bill added to next year’s calendar.