Fight brews over New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing overhaul by Christie

Posted: September 16, 2011

The Christie administration, providing details Thursday of its decision to eliminate the state's controversial affordable-housing agency, said the move would end a regulatory nightmare, but advocates called it an illegal giveaway to political allies.

In late June, while Trenton was focused on approving a new budget, Gov. Christie announced several state-government reorganization plans. Those included the elimination of the independent Council on Affordable Housing and the transfer of its functions to the Department of Community Affairs.

The changes would allow Christie to give towns more control over the construction of affordable housing, long a heated issue in a densely populated state where housing costs are high and poverty is concentrated.

New Jersey courts have ruled that towns are obligated to permit the construction of housing for low-income residents. The housing council was the independent agency that determined each town's obligation.

"The goal of this reorganization plan is to put an end to this hopelessly complex and outdated system - and provide affordable housing opportunities to our most deserving residents," DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa, a Christie cabinet member, said in a statement.

"By consolidating the authority for housing within the [DCA], we will not only reduce bureaucracy in the system, but foster greater predictability for all players in the affordable housing arena."

Grifa said Christie believes that "housing and land use decisions should be made locally" and that the changes "will reduce the bureaucratic logjam and frustration that has chilled housing development for the last few years."

The Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill - which has long fought to enforce Supreme Court rulings that towns must provide their "fair share" of affordable housing - vowed to sue.

Affordable-housing advocates keyed in on an element of the new guidelines under which "municipalities are encouraged to submit requests for waivers of regulations necessary to expedite the production of housing." After a 10-day comment period, the requests can be granted by the Christie administration.

Adam Gordon, an attorney for the Fair Share Housing Center, called the reorganization plan a "mockery of the rule of law" and a "consolidation of power" by Christie.

Gordon said politicians could now seek a waiver, allowing them to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing trust fund money for nonhousing purposes.

Or, towns could ask for waivers to limit housing to senior citizens and keep out families, Gordon said.

"If you're well-connected to Gov. Christie, you can come in and just ask the commissioner to give you millions of dollars in funds," Gordon said. "And if you're not well-connected, he can just say no. This isn't the rule of law; it's a way to just let people who are well-connected get what they want."

Since the process for determining affordable housing obligations has been eliminated, Gordon said, Christie "just took control of [millions of dollars] that he didn't have control over yesterday."

The Council on Affordable Housing had been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, but a bill abolishing the agency was conditionally vetoed by the governor this year. In its place, Christie issued this reorganization plan.

The Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly had the opportunity this summer to block the plan, but did not.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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