At a time when large numbers of residents and families have been displaced, due to the slow economy or the loss of their homes in Hurricane Sandy, fewer and fewer affordable units are being built statewide.
Adam Gordon, a staff attorney for the New Jersey affordable housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing Center, says without new affordable housing more residents may be forced to move out of state, especially families at or below the poverty line.
“The question is, are they going to have a place to live in Atlantic County, New Jersey?” Gordon asked. “Or is the response that they don’t belong in New Jersey?”
The stall in affordable housing comes from two ongoing court cases being heard by the state Supreme Court — one challenging the validity of towns’ latest obligations, and another challenging Gov. Chris Christie’s reorganization plan that would abolish the Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, the regulatory agency that enforces affordable housing laws.
So the latest, third round of obligations — the number of affordable units each town “owes” — remain unchanged but essentially unenforced since towns needed to submit their compliance plans in 2008.
“It’s a regulatory limbo,” said Mike Cerra, senior legal analyst for the New Jersey League of Municipalities
“Nobody knows how to fulfill their (affordable housing) obligation,” said Galloway Township Planner Tiffany Cuviello. “And nobody knows what their obligation is.”
That delay, combined with the large numbers of people displaced by Sandy, “has really made the issue a lot worse,” Gordon said. “Things were so tight before Sandy, with no slack in the market.”
Some rents in shore area towns have increased 20 percent or more since the storm, he said.
Cerra said the League of Municipalities also has had its issues with the administration, including the decision approved by COAH this week to seize $140 million “uncommitted” municipal trust funds designated for affordable housing. But its greatest objection is to what towns see as unfair obligations, he said.
For the third round, the league states, one of every 10 housing units for which building permits were issued had to be affordable, with another affordable unit added for every 30 jobs created in town — which itself was calculated as three jobs for every 1,000 square feet of office space.
“Right now, towns really don’t have much guidance from the state,” Cerra said. “(But) the law is the law. Right now, the issue is how to comply with the Mount Laurel doctrine and the Fair Housing Act, so we objected loudly to the regulations because the numbers were inflated. There’s anecdotal evidence of an error in math. Examples of land ‘suitable for development’ — and therefore included in affordable housing requirement calculations — are clearly not suitable for development. The land’s already been built upon, or it’s open space.”
In the meantime, the limbo continues in local municipalities. Galloway has been using its affordable housing trust fund for building programs with Habitat For Humanity and The Caring Group, Cuviello said, “But we haven’t had to do anything requiring developers to provide affordable housing. There’s not much building right now, which helps.”
In Northfield, “We’re such a developed community that we’ve determined there’re very limited areas for building affordable housing,” said Northfield Planning Board Chair Richard Levitt. “We have elected to wait and see where the current litigation is going. We don’t really have any final guidelines yet. ... We’re not taking steps to be compliant, and one reason is that we’re not sure what ‘being compliant’ actually means.”
Absecon, meanwhile, is involved in developments that include affordable housing — but the city is still working on its first- and second-round requirements of 144 affordable units. That’s mostly due to the failures of several age-restricted developments.
Once planned to be another age-restricted development, the Absecon Gardens development on New Jersey Avenue was approved as an all-ages development in 2011 by the Absecon Planning Board. While 76 units were approved, the project has since been scaled back to 58. Administrator Terry Dolan said 20 percent need to be affordable under COAH guidelines, so that includes six units reserved for low-income residents and six for moderate-income residents.
Joe Courter, founder of the Save Absecon group that’s opposing the project, said affordable housing is “not really a big concern” for the group, which is more worried about density issues in a downtown section of town. “If it was a senior project, there would have been affordable housing as well. Maybe the amount would have been less, but that’s neither here nor there,” he said.
On the developers’ side, the New Jersey Builders Association is looking for something in return for providing affordable housing — and that is a loosening of density requirements that would allow more units in some areas.
“What builders want to see is a framework that eliminates exclusionary zoning and provides offsetting benefits for obligations to provide affordable housing,” said NJBA land use counsel Thomas Carroll III. of the law firm Hill Wallack.
In Egg Harbor Township, officials are still looking to meet their requirements — even when plans were rejected. One example is a 70-unit affordable housing development designated for veterans — with rents between $690 and $945 per month — whose developer Ron Rukenstein had said could be opened to nonveterans if not enough veterans applied.
After heated opposition, it was pulled from consideration in April.
“The good news is, we are still going to try to provide affordable housing for our veterans, our disabled veterans, but it's not going to be in your neighborhood,” Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough told those assembled at the Township Committee meeting.
“I’m always amazed,” Morgan said. “People propose housing for veterans, and that’s opposed? Most of the country doesn’t work this way. ... If you go to most states and say ‘I oppose housing for veterans,’ you’d get run out of the room. Yet that’s an acceptable thing in New Jersey.”
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