(Question – How would this new proposal be enforced to ensure that towns did not shirk their responsibilities to provide affordabled housing and if RCA’s are reinstated how do you ensure that wealthier towns make timely payments to the towns receiving the compensation?)
By Lisa Fleisher/Statehouse Bureau
TRENTON — The state Senate began work today on a bill to transform the way affordable housing is handled in New Jersey, including transferring control to towns and abolishing a council that has been criticized as ineffective.
The proposal, still a very much a draft, would disband the controversial Council on Affordable Housing and turn its powers over to the State Planning Commission, ending 25 years of state power over municipal planning.
The goal is to create a standard level of affordable housing and allow municipalities to determine for themselves whether they meet that standard, said Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor.
“This bill is an attempt to simplify the process,” Lesniak said, noting he’s never met anyone who was happy with the council, known as COAH.
New Jersey’s current approach stems from the state Supreme Court’s 1975 and 1983 Mount Laurel decisions, which are named for the Burlington County township that was sued. The court said every resident is entitled to access to affordable housing.
A decade later, the state passed the Fair Housing Act and created COAH to implement policy. Critics of the policy say the models for determining the need for housing are outdated and saddle cities and towns with unnecessary extra housing and residents — and the accompanying cost of providing services to them.
Municipalities without enough housing would be able to offer builders incentives to make 20 percent of their developments affordable.
Under the legislation, builders still can legally challenge towns on whether they provide their required affordable housing. That provision allows developers the right to build units against a town’s wishes.
Dozens of people who came to testify at today’s hearing were cut off as time ran out, but Lesniak said they would have many more chances to speak. The committee will hold another hearing on the bill Monday but does not expect to vote.
Critics of the bill say it is a giveaway to developers, would allow municipalities to shirk their responsibilities and could endanger housing for the disabled. Lesniak said disabled residents would be protected in the legislation’s final version.
Low-income housing advocates say the bill would return New Jersey to pre-Mount Laurel practices and needs to be more targeted toward economic development goals.
“It’s shortsighted. It’s narrow-minded,” said Joseph Picard, spokesman for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “We need to be thinking in terms of building housing near jobs and transportation.”
The bill also would temporarily bring back agreements between municipalities that allow towns, in essence, to sell off their affordable-housing requirements to other cities or towns. That practice was outlawed in 2008 with 5,000 units worth $116 million in the pipeline. The bill would allow those stalled deals to move forward if they are approved by the state by the end of 2011.
Though Lesniak said he has not spoken with Gov. Chris Christie, he thinks the proposal will have a “better opportunity” to pass than it would have under the Corzine administration. Christie has said he wanted to “gut” COAH but yesterday said he did not know enough about the bill to comment.