Affordable-housing deal eludes N.J. officials

Jean Siciliano in her apartment in a new housing development in Evesham that was built under New Jersey's 1985 affordable-housing law. Siciliano, who lost her job in a 2009 corporate downsizing, calls her home a "godsend." She pays $658 in monthly rent.
Jean Siciliano in her apartment in a new housing development in Evesham that was built under New Jersey's 1985 affordable-housing law. Siciliano, who lost her job in a 2009 corporate downsizing, calls her home a "godsend." She pays $658 in monthly rent.
Posted: February 08, 2011

After Jean Siciliano lost her job as a purchasing agent during a corporate downsizing in 2009, she feared she could no longer afford to raise her teenage son in Evesham.

She stayed in the suburb because a nonprofit agency approved her for a spacious apartment in a new housing development on Sharp Road for $658 in monthly rent.

That development was built under a 1985 law - enacted in response to state Supreme Court rulings - requiring towns to provide low- and moderate-income housing.

But as thousands of people like Siciliano fall on hard times during the current economic downturn, New Jersey leaders have failed to put in place a workable affordable-housing system for more financially struggling residents.

Amid the seeming impasse between legislators and Gov. Christie's administration in overhauling housing regulations, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said Monday he was introducing a new bill. But it is not clear whether those involved can agree on a plan any time soon.

After hearing arguments in December 2009 from parties challenging the latest version of the Council on Affordable Housing's (COAH) rules, the state Appeals Court appeared to be taking a step back to see if elected officials would sort things out on their own. Christie had vowed on the campaign trail to overhaul the state's controversial housing regulations, and lawmakers considered possible solutions all last year.

As legislators and the administration debated, the court in October struck down the regulations and gave the state five months to come up with new ones.

But the state Supreme Court last month put that deadline on hold, and Christie two weeks ago conditionally vetoed a housing-overhaul compromise and said he would only sign into law an earlier version that experts say is unconstitutional.

On Monday, the governor said in response to a question at a news conference that he had not seen Lesniak's new bill; he again questioned why the Legislature had not passed the initial proposal.

Assemblyman Jerry Green (D., Union), who has led housing-overhaul efforts in the Assembly, said he was willing to hear suggestions but would oppose a bill that is "the same old, same old. . . . I'm not going to go along to get along."

The disagreement leaves some of those involved hopeful that the top court will once again address how the state should comply with affordable-housing mandates under what is known as the "Mount Laurel doctrine," born out of Supreme Court cases involving housing in that suburb.

Given the differences in what the Legislature, the administration, municipalities, and others want, "I think a lot of people on every side of the issue right now are kind of pointing to the courts [for] direction," said Michael Cerra, a legislative analyst with the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

The league has requested that the court address several matters concerning the Mount Laurel doctrine, in response to last fall's Appeals Court decision overturning the rules because they relied on a "growth share" system that the ruling said allowed towns to avoid providing affordable homes by discouraging growth.

Jeffrey Surenian, a lawyer who represents numerous towns on affordable housing, also has filed papers requesting that the Supreme Court wade into the debate.

"Towns that clearly have not excluded low- and moderate-income households are being saddled with obligations, and I think this would be an opportunity for the Supreme Court to take another look at that aspect of the doctrine . . . what worked, what didn't work," Surenian said.

"The balance that the Supreme Court intended was that there be some open access to communities, not that every square inch of vacant developable land be subject to high-density development. . . . We've just come a long ways from what I think the court intended," he added.

Many officials criticize the current system as unwieldy "big government," with the state dictating to towns how much housing they must provide in ways that mayors say burden them with overdevelopment and sprawl. And some argue that the housing rules actually make New Jersey less affordable for other residents in a town, by leading to higher property taxes to pay for services for newcomers.

But any change to give towns more control over the process, as Christie is advocating, also would have to meet court precedents that housing lawyers say do not allow municipalities such leeway. The version of the bill supported by the governor also retains the recently overturned "growth share" method.

Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center, said the courts had repeatedly called for a check on municipal discretion where affordable-housing policy was concerned.

"Mayors cannot hold the keys to the state's housing policy because many of them, especially in the wealthier towns, demonstrate they can't be trusted with that power - that is what the courts have ruled again and again," he said.

Cerra said that lawmakers' efforts to change the system last year started off with great promise, but that the bill grew more and more complicated as special interests weighed in. The league opposed provisions in the legislation Christie vetoed, saying it increased housing obligations for towns in later years and offered them less protection from lawsuits in which builders could force high-density development.

But the veto "advocates the adoption of another law that will just be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional," said Thomas Carroll, land-use counsel to the New Jersey Builders Association.

Carroll said the builders association, which had supported the vetoed legislation, saw no reason for the Supreme Court to hear the case because the appellate division's ruling in October was well-grounded.

"There is no reason . . . to add to the delay COAH has visited upon the regulated community for 10 years now with these unconstitutional rules," Carroll said.

He was referring to the fact that the most recent rules were for the "third round" of state housing obligations that had been required to start in 1999.

Ahaji Schreffler, who moved into a COAH-certified home in Moorestown with her teenage son in 2006, finds the lack of progress on affordable housing discouraging.

"I don't know what other issues are really more pressing in people's day-to-day lives other than their living situation, and now more than ever they need help given the economy and unemployment and the rising cost of living," Schreffler said.

She makes less than $50,000 working as an academic adviser at a university, and had moved from Burlington City in search of a better neighborhood and school system.

"I know how much it's helped my personal living situation, and my son - it's made a huge impact," said Schreffler. "So I can only imagine that thousands of other people are in similar situations."

Siciliano described her home in Evesham as a "godsend," a well-kept development that allows a mix of young adults, seniors, and families to live without the stigma often attached to affordable housing.

Lesniak, the chief architect of the earlier affordable-housing bill, said he believed the proposal was "salvageable" but criticized Christie for not working to forge more of a compromise.

"I think we have to act very soon because every day that goes by we're inhibiting the development of affordable housing, we're inhibiting job creation and investment in the state, and nobody knows what the rules are," said Lesniak.

Green said he had tried to meet Christie halfway while also developing legislation that would withstand a court challenge. At the governor's urging, he had earlier removed from the bill a 2.5 percent fee on commercial development to help subsidize affordable housing, but he would not back down on a provision calling for a 1.5 percent fee on residential development.

The legislation would have abolished COAH, as advocated by the governor, but contained other provisions Christie deemed too bureaucratic. The governor also opposed a measure that would require many towns to have at least 10 percent of their total housing dedicated as affordable, saying it would create obligations "well in excess" of those required under the current system.

"I don't see anything I could do any more than I have done without making a bill that really doesn't make any sense whatsoever," Green said.

"I was hoping the governor and legislators could have done this without a judge telling us to do it," he added, "but it's obvious the governor has drawn a line in the sand, I have drawn a line in the sand, and when that happens you're forced to have a third party come in and say which side is right."


Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com.

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