Mahwah, Montvale and 11 other municipalities spanning New Jersey are suing Gov. Phil Murphy, alleging he violated the Fair Housing Act and demanding the administration reinstate the defunct Affordable Housing Council, which they say will protect cities from “runaway development” and the speed of creating affordable units.
But affordable-housing advocates said it’s strange for cities that want to revive an agency they’ve often walled off, prompting lawsuits to force them to meet their housing obligations.
In March 2015The New Jersey Supreme Court said COAH is “dying” and defunct after the statewide agency tasked with approving affordable housing plans in cities failed for more than 15 years to adopt updated affordable housing quotas and rules that cities must follow. has stopped construction on affordable units for decades.
The ruling moved a process once controlled by the council to the Superior Court: Municipalities negotiated agreements with fair housing advocates such as the Mount Laurel-based nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center, creating judge-approved plans for how cities should zone for affordable housing projects. , and where the available blocks will be built.
The process protected cities until 2025 from developer lawsuits, allowing a developer to avoid the municipal approval process and build a project with as many market-rate units as it wants, as long as at least 20% of the units are affordable.
The board has not met since the Supreme Court decision and has not taken any action since 2015, said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, the agency that oversees the board.
The 13 towns that filed the new lawsuit, along with Chatham, East Hanover, Beach Haven, Bordentown, Cranford, Egg Harbor, Fairfield, Freehold, Jackson, Reddington and Sayreville, said the refusal to appoint board members to a council that “effectively by disbanding” the agency, Murphy violated the Fair Housing Act of 1985, which created the board.
The council’s absence “has caused enormous delays in affordable housing across the state,” said Mahwah Councilman David May, the township’s affordable housing liaison. “Now would be the perfect time to re-establish COAH. Without COAH, there will only be further delays in providing needed housing to those in need.”
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The municipalities want a court order to restore the agency to protect cities “from unreasonable development while simultaneously creating effective and affordable housing in accordance with the principles of rational land use planning,” Cranford Township said in a press release.
“The residents of Cranford and New Jersey, including the very families in need of affordable housing, have been left at the mercy of an overburdened court system that developers are using to push large, oversized projects,” Cranford said in a release, citing the Hartz plan. Mountain Corp. The original proposal was a residential complex for 900 apartments, but has since been converted into a commercial area retail and warehouse space and a 250-unit residential complex with 38 affordable units.
Murphy’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit and did not respond to questions about whether the governor plans to reinstate the board.
Housing Center Fair Share said the council was “dysfunctional” and had “done nothing” for 15 years.
“Cities that want to go back to this system want to circumvent their constitutional obligations for affordable housing and keep low-income people and people of color out of their cities,” said Alex Staropoli, the center’s director of advocacy and communications.
“Some of the cities in the lawsuit have never filed fair share plans, and others have been sued repeatedly for violating their agreements,” Staropoli said. “Cities that want to avoid their affordable housing obligations want to keep housing segregated in New Jersey. It’s that simple.”
Staropoli said it was “amazing” to see the cities want the board back, since many of them “never even participated in it and in many cases didn’t follow through until they were sued or at all.”
The five cities named in the lawsuit submitted fair housing plans to the board in the latest “third round” before the agency adjourned the meeting, according to tracking by the Center for Fair Housing. They include Chatham, East Hanover, Mahwah, Montvale and Reddington.
Bordentown, Fairfield, Freehold and Jackson voluntarily sued instead of COAH. Egg Harbor did not adopt a fair share plan until the Fair Share Housing Center sued, and Cranford faced a builder’s lawsuit after not participating in the COAH process. Beach Haven and Sayreville have not filed with COAH or the court.
A series of key state Supreme Court cases created the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which requires municipalities to zone and create a “fair share” of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, which typically means a household that would spend a third of its monthly income on housing.
The Fair Share Housing Center estimates that as many as 70,000 affordable homes could be built in court over the next decade. But the Garden State is short of roughly 200,000 rental units for very low-income renters, according to a report by the National Housing Coalition.
Fair Share agreements protect cities from lawsuits by builders until 2025. On Thursday, the Assembly Housing Committee plans to discuss how the process should work after 2025. The public can listen to the hearing at www.njleg.state.nj.us/live-proceedings or visit the Trenton State House at 2 p.m