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A rocky year for affordable housing

By , - Last modified: March 2, 2011 at 3:03 PM

On the same day the state’s new governor was sworn into office — following a campaign in which Chris Christie voiced his disdain for the Council on Affordable Housing

rules that govern affordable housing — state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) introduced a bill that would abolish COAH and allow municipalities more control over affordable housing.

Any of COAH’s detractors who thought the timing of these events seemed too good to be true were proven right, however, as the state was treated to a yearlong battle over how to handle the thorny affordable-housing issue in New Jersey’s neighborhoods.

Christie formally opened the offensive against COAH on Feb. 9, signing an executive order that froze the council’s actions for a 90-day period, giving a task force time to examine the state’s affordable-housing regulations and methodologies. But later that month, an appellate judge halted part of the executive order, ruling the council should resume its activities until the court heard an appeal filed by the Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based affordable-housing advocacy group.

On June 10, Lesniak’s bill, S-1, was passed by the Senate and received in the Assembly, though the Assembly’s own affordable-housing bill, A-3447, wouldn’t appear until October. Both pieces of legislation proposed abolishing COAH, but the bills had their differences, particularly on the elimination of a nonresidential development fee equal to 2.5 percent of a project’s cost. S-1 promoted this, while A-3447 did not.

Also in October, an appellate court invalidated the parts of COAH’s revised so-called Third Round Rules, which used a growth-share methodology to assess a municipality’s future affordable-housing needs. The court also directed the state to revise the rules within five months. That decision “was the most important thing that happened this year,” said Kevin D. Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center.

By the time the Assembly passed A-3447 on Dec. 13, the bill had been rewritten with multiple amendments, including a repeal of the nonresidential development fee. The lengthy legislative process to reform the state’s affordable-housing policy was the result of “a lot of divergent interests,” according to Lesniak. “To come up with a simple program that satisfied the Mount Laurel requirements — that all municipalities provide reasonable opportunities for low- and moderate-income housing — was a very difficult process.”

Walsh, however, argued that “the issue isn’t that complicated. It’s a matter of them finding the political will to do it.” While the Assembly bill was an improvement over S-1, which “had 100 loopholes,” the number of affordable units that would be produced was still “so low it won’t produce anything that is close to what we need,” he said. Walsh added that state officials “haven’t done anything yet” with regard to revising the COAH rules.
S-1 was substituted for A-3447, but at press time, no further legislative action had been taken on the measure, and no other sessions are scheduled for the calendar year.

“Furthering a beleagured system, whether through COAH or even a more burdensome legislative process, would only result in more confusion.” Lori Grifa, commissioner, Department of Community Affairs
But in her testimony to an Assembly committee on Dec. 10, Lori Grifa, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees COAH, said the bill amendments were “more arduous than COAH, and will only serve to repeat the failures of the past.”

Among other concerns, the bill amendments to A-3447 failed to consider environmentally sensitive areas of the state, relied too heavily on not-for-profit affordable-housing developers and allowed for very little state oversight in the affordable-housing process, she said.

“Furthering a beleaguered system, whether through COAH or even a more burdensome legislative process, will only result in more confusion and delay in achieving our affordable-housing goals,” Grifa said.

Despite the current “very fluid” state of the legislation, Michael McGuiness, CEO of NAIOP New Jersey, a commercial real estate development association, said he expected “some substantive changes to regulations” next year. “Towns, businesses and developers certainly will have a much different environment to work within,” he said.

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