Amending NJ’s Affordable Housing Law

For four hours yesterday, New Jersey housers, advocates, and legislatures deliberated changes to the state’s affordable housing law, currently enforced by the Council on Affordable Housing, an entity Gov. Chris Christie vowed to “gut” throughout his 2009 campaign.

What he meant by that at the time was somewhat unclear, but changes to the law had been a long time coming, as we examined in an article this summer

Among the many problems with the council, otherwise known as COAH, which grew out of the landmark 1985 Mount Laurel court decision, was that it did not look at the development capacity of individual towns, particularly those towns that were built out. COAH has been roundly derided for its “broad brush” approach to mandating affordable housing.

But advocates have also defended COAH in the face of new proposed legisation that threatens the intent of the Mount Laurel decision, that is, to provide affordable housing commensurate with development and employment levels in towns, allowing for greater economic diversity.

The bill that passed the state Assembly’s Housing and Local Government Committee yesterday does a few things:

  • Require developers to set aside 10 percent of new residential projects as affordable, except in more urban areas where between 25 and 50 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches;
  • Allow development proposals in so-called “noncompliant towns” to be deemed “inherently beneficial” when the builder applies for a zoning variance, if 20 percent of the units are affordable
  • To achieve compliance under the new bill, A3447, towns could zone 20 percent of their vacant, developable land for those with a household income of up to 150 percent of the region’s median household income;

Criticism of the proposal abounds. The Fair Share Housing Center came out yesterday saying that the bill does “not actualy require a sing development in the entire state of New Jersey to include homes affordable to low- and moderate-income people,” that it “forces construction of unneeded homes for people earning up to $150,000, while excluding working families,” and that it “shuts out nonprofits and people with special needs” as towns are permitted to turn down small-scale proposals for supportive housing or nonprofit-built starters.

Moreover, The Star-Ledger characterized A3447 as a “failure” in a recent editorial and made the case that while “everyone hates COAH,” it can only be replaced with more effective legislation.

WIth the bill passing the muster in committee, the full Assembly is likely to approve the measure. It’s amazing that this process has been driven largely by ideology, still, and so lacks in the policy department. It’s becoming clear that gutting COAH has blinded policy makers from crafting policy that, as we outlined in the Shelterforce piece, finds ways to “provide affordable housing in the most fiscally responsible manner (i.e., distributing the financial burden in the most equitable way) and in the most environmentally responsible manner.”

Oh, and did we mention that Gov. Christie has vowed to veto any legislation if it contains a 2.5 developers fee on nonresidential development? Sigh.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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