Three weeks after the state-mandated July 8 deadline for communities to submit their affordable housing plans to Superior Court, fewer than half of the municipalities in The Press coverage area have complied.

Of the 66 municipalities in The Press coverage area — 12 of 23 in Atlantic County, 10 of 16 in Cape May County and four of 13 in southern Ocean County — filed motions with the court by the deadline. None in Cumberland County did.

“Towns generally miss deadlines like this for one of three reasons,” said Kevin Walsh, executive director of the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill. “The first is nobody is paying attention. The second is they’re paying attention but can’t get their heads around complying. The third is they know (about the deadline) but they don’t think anybody is going to sue them, and they take that risk.”

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t file by July 8,” said Jeffrey Surenian, an attorney whose Brielle practice is dedicated to representing municipalities, including Absecon, Egg Harbor Township, Northfield, Upper Township and West Cape May.

Ocean City, which owes about 1,500 affordable housing units, according to FSHC, entered into a shared services agreement July 23 to hire Surenian as administrator and Rutgers University to calculate its unmet need.

Middle Township, which did not renew its professional services contract with Surenian’s firm this year, is one of 40 municipalities in The Press coverage area that did not file with Superior Court.

“In my opinion, Middle Township has proven its commitment to providing affordable housing,” Constance Mahon, administrator of the Cape May County municipality, said in a statement. “We are carefully watching COAH issues evolve to ensure that our taxpayers are protected from unfair or inequitable housing obligations but were unwilling to expend more taxpayer money on a declaratory judgment given the uncertain future of COAH.”

The Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, has failed to enforce affordable housing obligations since 2008, the primary reason the state Supreme Court intervened earlier this year and assigned the issue to Superior Court.

“It is our position that we have made every attempt to adhere to COAH’s ever-evolving mandates,” Mahon said.

CONSEQUENCES OF MISSING DEADLINE

Walsh said about 300 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities had filed by the deadline. By filing declaratory judgments, often called “DJs” as shorthand, municipalities submit themselves to the court’s jurisdiction and request immunity from lawsuits while they prepare their affordable housing plans for review and comment from the court.

“A different standard applies to towns that did file versus those that did not,” Surenian said, calling those that did “proactive” and those that did not “reactive.”

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“They can still try to come in before getting sued,” Walsh said of municipalities that may intend to file with the court despite missing the deadline. “But the ability to comply with Mount Laurel didn’t disappear July 8,” a reference to the 1987 landmark lawsuit that prohibited exclusionary zoning.

“The ability to be sued was reduced somewhat July 8 by giving immunity from builders’ litigation,” Walsh said. “But towns are not immune from all litigation.”

He said civil groups and nonprofit agencies such as the Fair Share Housing Center or a grass-roots organization such as Ocean City Smart Growth could sue municipalities that have not complied.

“There may be no real market for any housing in their towns,” Walsh said, giving another reason some municipalities, such as those in rural Cumberland County, ignored the deadline. “Also, some towns have no obligation now. They just have the rehabilitation obligation.”

Municipalities can meet their rehabilitation obligation by bringing older homes occupied by low- and moderate-income residents up to building code.

Cumberland County municipalities with zero current obligations are Bridgeton, Commercial Township, Downe Township, Lawrence Township and Vineland. In a Letter to the Editor last week, Millville Mayor Michael Santiago disputed FSHC’s calculation of 1,000 units owed, saying the city was exempt from future affordable housing requirements and needed only to bring 140 housing units occupied by low- and moderate-income residents up to building code.

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