Advocacy group, calling Christie tardy on affordable housing, seeks push from court

Posted: March 06, 2014

TRENTON A housing advocacy group is set to ask a state appellate court Wednesday to direct a special authority to produce new rules governing affordable housing, after Gov. Christie's administration failed to meet a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to complete the task.

Administration officials last week requested an extension from the Supreme Court, which in September ordered the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to rewrite rules for determining how many homes municipalities must provide for lower-income residents. The court had set a Feb. 26 deadline.

The Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based nonprofit, filed a motion with the Appellate Division in December asking that a special master be appointed to oversee the creation of new rules, arguing that the state had taken no steps to comply with the order and would not meet the deadline.

Oral arguments on the Fair Share motion are scheduled to be heard Wednesday in Newark.

In a separate motion filed with the Supreme Court the day the rules were due last month, Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable asked for the deadline to be extended to May 1, saying that while "substantial progress" had been made in reviewing data and crafting a new methodology, "that process must now be completed."

Previously, an attorney for the state had said new rules could be written in 30 days, said Kevin Walsh, associate director of Fair Share.

"They've had five months, and they can't really point to a single thing that's been accomplished," Walsh said Monday. "This is just an effort to kick the can down the road until it becomes even more obvious they're proceeding in bad faith."

Constable, who was at a Sandy-related town hall meeting with Gov. Christie on Tuesday in Ocean County, declined in an interview to comment on questions about COAH. A spokesman for the Department of Community Affairs did not respond to a list of e-mailed questions.

In a response to the housing center's motion, the state is arguing that the appellate court does not have authority to act on the request in light of the Supreme Court decision.

The affordable-housing rules stem from the landmark Mount Laurel case in 1975, when the Supreme Court ruled that suburban municipalities needed to make housing available to low- and moderate-income residents.

Established under the 1985 Fair Housing Act, COAH created rules to allocate the need for affordable housing. Housing need was calculated regionally, and municipalities were assigned their "fair share" based on a number of factors, including population growth and jobs.

After years of delay, a "growth-share" approach was adopted in 2008, tying housing obligations to a municipality's growth. Critics said the rules let wealthier suburbs skirt their obligations by limiting growth.

The rules were struck down by the Appellate Division in 2010, a decision the state Supreme Court upheld in September.

"A remedy must be put in place to eliminate the limbo in which municipalities, New Jersey citizens, developers, and affordable-housing interest groups have lived for too long," the court said.

Christie, who has argued for local control in housing decisions, tried to disband COAH but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court in July. He accused the court of continuing "to blindly perpetuate a failed social experiment in housing."

According to Fair Share, the COAH board has not met since May 2013. Constable, the chairman of the board, has not called a meeting, said Walsh, who receives notice when meetings are scheduled.

"The board is supposed to be in control, but Constable is running the show," Walsh said. "They're just ignoring another court order in that regard."

In his motion seeking an extension on drafting the affordable-housing rules, Constable said data "has been, and continues to be reviewed," including from the U.S. Census and Department of Labor Workforce Development, as well as building permits and information on available land.

Fair Share wants the appellate court to appoint a master to draft and propose new rules in COAH's place. That person could be a planner who understands zoning and land use, or someone knowledgeable about census and demographic data, Walsh said.

Alternatively, the housing center wants the appellate court to strip COAH of its powers and transfer the authority for enforcing affordable-housing obligations to the judiciary. Municipalities that have prepared housing plans or have plans certified by COAH receive protection from lawsuits.

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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