Court says Christie can't dismantle housing agency for now

Posted: June 13, 2012

In a check on Gov. Christie's use of power, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday refused to halt a lower-court ruling that mandated reopening the state's affordable housing agency.

Housing advocates saw the decision as a victory over Christie's efforts to roll back requirements on towns to build housing for those who can't afford market rate.

"Gov. Christie simply does not have the power to unilaterally abolish independent agencies he doesn't like," said Kevin D. Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, which sued Christie over the issue. In a statement, he said the court's ruling meant that dozens of state agencies are protected from "political interference."

Last June, Christie issued a reorganization order that shuttered the independent Council on Affordable Housing and folded its functions into Christie's Department of Community Affairs. Christie had said he wanted to save money and cut red tape.

The Fair Share Housing Center sued, saying the governor overstepped his authority, and an appellate court in March agreed.

The Christie administration sought a stay on the appellate decision. That was denied Monday in a one-page state Supreme Court order that contained no votes or explanation. The administration also appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, but justices have not yet announced whether they will hear the case.

The question of how to provide affordable housing in an expensive state has long dogged policymakers, and over the decades, the court has offered a series of controversial rulings mandating that towns build housing for low- and moderate-income residents. Lawmakers established the Council on Affordable Housing as an outgrowth of those rulings.

Christie has been bullish about ending those affordable housing requirements, and it is part of the reason he has made new appointments to the Supreme Court one of his administration's key objectives. Christie and Democrats are now at an impasse over the makeup of the court, which lacks two of its seven permanent justices.

Christie's office had no comment about Monday's ruling but noted that the Republican governor was not acting unilaterally in moving to close the agency. The plan was issued last June under a reorganization law that gave the Democratic-controlled Legislature 60 days to block such a move.

But Democrats never met to discuss the matter. They have supported legislation to eliminate COAH because its housing requirements are often unpopular among municipal officials.

The appellate court's March ruling on Christie's use of the reorganization law indicated that he had exercised too much power. Housing advocates said that with affordable housing under control of DCA, formerly public decisions were made behind closed doors and Christie's commissioner unilaterally made decisions.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club, which has been fighting the governor over a plan that allows companies to get waivers from environmental regulations by appealing directly to the administration, said the ruling Monday was a positive sign for others challenging Christie's orders.

Christie also is seeking to take more than $150 million in state municipalities' local housing trust funds and use it to balance his budget, which is due to be signed June 30. The money was intended to be used to build affordable housing, and legislators from both parties took initial action last week to stop the move.

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

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