Court Decision Paves Way for Affordable Housing Revival in NJ

Moribund.” That’s the term New Jersey’s Supreme Court used when referring to the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) in its unanimous decision to strip the government agency of its authority to set affordable housing regulations for New Jersey municipalities. The decision, handed down last week in In re Adoption of N.J.A.C. 5:96 & 5:97, allows low- and moderate-income families and their advocates to challenge exclusionary zoning in court, rather than having to wait for the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to issue rules that may never come.

When a subordinate is unwilling to meet their responsibilities, an employer typically lets that person go. It was no surprise COAH was given a pink slip after ignoring the Court’s numerous orders and simply shrugging its shoulders when asked for an explanation.
Housing advocates are still analyzing the finer points of the Court’s decision, which was successfully argued by our colleagues at Fair Share Housing Center and in which the Network, New Jersey Future, the American Planning Association (APA) and its New Jersey Chapter filed a friend-of-the-court brief. At the end of the uncertainty, the prospective opportunities have given the community development sector reason to celebrate. The Court’s action re-establishes a mechanism to create the affordable homes New Jersey residents need. Towns will be more apt to work with local nonprofit developers to meet obligations in a fair and responsible manner, or face legal action.

Many municipalities were already doing their fair share before the Court’s decision. Last December, the Network presented the City of Jersey City, Roxbury Township, Millstone Township, and Princeton with the 2014 Outstanding Municipal Partner Awards for their leadership and commitment to creating affordable homes in their neighborhoods. These towns have worked closely with local nonprofit community developers despite the lack of clear COAH rules. They, like many others, knew that New Jersey would eventually have a process and rules that every town could follow. We’re cautiously optimistic more towns will follow their lead now that the Court has ruled.

A recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that NJ has the fifth largest deficit of affordable and available homes (210,481) in the country for renters with below 30 percent average median income. The economic downturn, foreclosure crisis, and Superstorm Sandy have exacerbated our state’s housing crisis. If you are in the market for a McMansion, no problem, you can have your pick. But for those with more modest incomes, like security guards, childcare providers and bus drivers–the people who make our economy hum and spend money when they have more of it–housing choices are extremely limited. Limited supply leads to increased demand, which drives up costs for everyone. Hopefully, the Court’s decision will pave the way for an overdue change.

New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine has always served as a model for other states. After this latest decision, our state can serve as a model for how others can incentivize the creation of affordable homes. One thing is certain, New Jersey is proof that advocacy works. Housing advocates and community developers have fought long and hard to ensure New Jersey’s fair housing law remains fair, intact, and effective. The Supreme Court decision was a tremendous victory for advocates and the result of tireless advocacy for more than a decade. Now, New Jersey’s nonprofit community developers are getting those hammers ready to start building the affordable homes New Jersey needs.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Brian Turner, CC BY 2.0)

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Staci Berger is president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (the Network), and directs this statewide association of over 250 community-based development organizations, created in 1989. She was previously its director of advocacy and policy. Prior to joining the Network, Staci worked for nine years with New Jersey Citizen Action where she went from being an organizer to the Political and Legislative director, where she devised and implemented political, legislative, and electoral strategy for the state’s largest non-profit, non-partisan independent watchdog coalition. She received her Masters in Public Affairs and Politics from Rutgers University in 2004. Staci has served as an associate trainer for the Midwest Academy, a leading national training institute for the progressive movement, and worked as a labor organizer with the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and the Health Professionals and Allied Employees/AFT/AFL-CIO.

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