Affordable housing center goes after Moorestown

Posted: November 25, 2015

Alleging that Moorestown has failed to live up to its legal obligation to zone for affordable housing, an advocacy group has asked a Superior Court judge to declare that the township must allow at least 1,521 new low- and middle-income units by 2025.

"Moorestown has not proceeded in good faith" with regard to its housing obligation arising out of the Mount Laurel Supreme Court rulings, the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) said in a filing last week before Judge Ronald Bookbinder in Mount Holly.

The filing was a response to Moorestown's Nov. 6 filing, in which the township said it "lacks the vacant and developable land resources" to build that many units, and has room and obligation for only 406.

Anthony Drollas, Moorestown's attorney, said Monday that the housing center's claims were premature and unwarranted on numerous grounds. The township's filing was based on a draft report that its planning board consultants had prepared to meet a court deadline.

Drollas said Moorestown was waiting for a study being prepared for the New Jersey League of Municipalities that would propose a formula for calculating the affordable housing obligation of about 300 municipalities statewide.

The FSHC filing asserts, however, that Moorestown's calculation "did not comply with applicable law in numerous ways" and should be thrown out.

"Large parts of the municipality were excluded from the analysis because of sewer unavailability, an approach that is not permitted by any source of law," it said.

"Moorestown has done nothing to comply with the Mount Laurel Doctrine for nearly two decades."

The 1975 court case was brought by poor black residents who had been displaced in Mount Laurel by development and exclusionary zoning. The township refused to let the residents build affordable garden apartments, and the state Supreme Court found that to be discriminatory.

"Moorestown is one of the worst actors in the state in that it's done so little. Their zoning allows the building of gargantuan houses but not starter homes and apartments," Kevin Walsh, FSHC's executive director, said Monday at his office in Cherry Hill.

"So it's a place we're putting a lot of effort," he said.

In its countersuit, which Walsh drafted, FSHC asked Bookbinder to:

Void as unconstitutional the town's affordable housing proposal.

Lift its immunity from builder lawsuits seeking to force compliance.

Declare that Moorestown has an overdue obligation to allow another 621 units from a previous requirement.

Appoint a special master to oversee that the town fulfill its perceived obligations.

Reimburse FSHC for its court costs, saying the township had violated the civil rights of those entitled to affordable housing under the Mount Laurel doctrine.

The doctrine emerged out of a series of state Supreme Court decisions over the last 40 years that spell out municipalities' constitutional obligation to provide "a fair share" of their region's affordable housing, the court noted in a March 10 opinion.

That March ruling, based on a lawsuit brought by the FSHC, said that because Gov. Christie had effectively disbanded the Council on Affordable Housing, charged with administering the doctrine, that duty would fall to the courts.

In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court also said that the formula for calculating each municipality's share of housing units would revert to a formula devised in the 1980s.

As such, each municipality is obliged to submit its plan to the local Superior Court for review. Bookbinder is the assigning, or chief, judge for Burlington County.

Drollas said Monday that he was "greatly disappointed" that FSHC was asking Bookbinder to order Moorestown to pay the center's court costs for its filing based on civil rights claims, since Walsh had agreed in an October conference call with him and Bookbinder not to do so.

"We find no basis in law or the [March] Supreme Court decision to try to include a civil rights claim in this limited-purpose litigation," Drollas said.

He said Moorestown was considered a "participating" township that has tried to meet its affordable housing requirements. As such, he added, he found the civil rights claims "offensive, and we will oppose their attempt to include them in this case."

"If we succeed, we will seek sanctions for contempt and filing of frivolous litigation," he said.

Walsh said that his agreement not to file a civil rights claim had been temporary and was based on a request of Bookbinder's that he wait until Moorestown submitted its plan.

"We couldn't sue them for a civil rights act claim until they did something wrong," he said. "And then they did."

Matthew Reilly, executive director of the nonprofit Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development Inc. (MEND), which administers the township's affordable housing effort, said Monday that "there's always been the impression from a historical perspective that Moorestown was complying with its affordable housing obligation."

But with the Supreme Court's March decision, "everything's been thrown up in the air," he said.

"You have competing numbers calculated by different academicians and advocates about what each town should be doing. So it's going to take a while to sort out."

Reilly also said that it is not a town's obligation to build affordable housing, only to create zoning that allows it.

Few private developers see much profit in affordable housing, he said, so the process relies heavily on government subsidies, which are hard to come by.

"If all 567 towns in New Jersey marched into court today with their numbers and the judges agreed, where would the money come from?" he asked.

doreilly@phillynews.com856-779-3841

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