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Court blocks Christie from seizing affordable housing fees, but towns no closer to starting projects

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While a state appellate court further blocked the Gov. Chris Christie administration from seizing towns' affordable housing dollars on Friday, one local government representative said the court's move hasn't put municipalities any closer to breaking ground on housing projects.

“We’re more than a little frustrated that there’s been so many starts and stops, as this issue relates to something we see as a very clear and definitive housing policy,” said Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “The various judicial decisions have only further clouded the landscape as it relates to towns’ ability to provide affordable housing. All of this back and forth has contributed to the lack of guidance and direction that municipalities need to move forward on these projects.”

In a divided decision released late Friday afternoon, the appellate court said only the board of the Council on Affordable Housing can ask municipalities to hand over their affordable housing trust accounts, so it was unlawful for COAH acting Executive Director Sean Thompson and other staff to send out letters to towns demanding $161 million in unused funds by today.

In a letter sent out to local governments today, Dressel advised mayors to consult with their municipal attorneys, inform COAH of the current state of their housing trust funds and await further appeal from the state.

“Everything has come to a screeching halt, and we’re waiting for further direction from the state as to how they’re going to proceed with whether or not COAH will be reconstituted. It’s a very key decision the state has to make in a very short timeframe,” Dressel said. “As much as I want to say I see a bright light coming, I think this thing could become a legal morass of unprecedented proportions.”

But according to Michael McGuiness, CEO of NAIOP’s New Jersey chapter, while municipalities may have affordable housing developments already tied to their trust funds, the developers who supplied those funds to towns several years ago through “COAH fees” are not too concerned about their future.

“We definitely felt the COAH fees were excessive, but I think current situation is there have been no new monies going in for a while, and I don’t think it’s having any impact — good or bad — that’s affecting the industry right now,” McGuiness said. “For those that paid money into these affordable housing funds years ago, it’s water under the bridge.”

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