Posted by cjrothma March 09, 2009 20:31PM
Gov. Jon Corzine’s campaign pledge to get more housing built for the working class entered a new phase today, with the state agency overseeing his ambitious plan defending it against two dozen legal challenges.
More than 30 years after the opening shots were fired in the state’s housing wars, towns allege new state housing rules will bankrupt them. And, they say, they are unearthing ugly secrets about the accuracy of state housing formulas.
Patti Sapone/The Star-LedgerJoseph V. Doria, Jr. Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, speaks during a Senate Budget and Appropriations meeting in Trenton in April 2008.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities has accused state officials of withholding vital documents — including a study that appears to poke holes in the state’s analysis of how much vacant land remains in New Jersey. Builders and housing advocates, meanwhile, argue the new rules will allow suburbs to again shirk their responsibilities to the poor.
In a 130-page response to the challenges, filed today, the state Council on Affordable Housing painted itself as caught in the middle of warring parties, arguing it had been reasonable in drafting its sweeping new rules.
“At their essence … appellants’ complaints are that the obligations imposed on the municipalities are either too high or too low,” the state wrote.
In a sometimes arcane defense, the state downplayed the importance of the vacant-land spat, arguing any errors could be corrected and accusing towns of exaggerating its importance to the calculations.
“Gov. Corzine has a sincere commitment to providing housing for all the people of this state,” Joe Doria, who is heading up the state housing effort as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, said in an interview last week. “My purpose is to build as many affordable housing units as possible even in tough economic times.”
At issue are new regulations the state drafted in 2004, an attempt to move away from a 20-year-old method of getting housing built. It attempted to replace town-by-town quotas with a “growth share” system, which requires towns to build one affordable unit whenever it builds a certain amount of market-rate housing or commercial development.
The Supreme Court rejected the formula in 2007, and COAH went back to the drawing board. New regulations approved in July made it tougher on towns, requiring them to build one affordable unit for every four units of market-rate housing or 16 jobs created through commercial construction.
About half the towns in the state argue they will be required to
build far too much affordable housing and they vehemently oppose how COAH plans to implement its approach.
“Anyone who stands up and says the affordable housing numbers are wrong is called a racist,” said Nick Corcodilos, a former mayor of Clinton Township in Hunterdon County, which banded together with 19 other towns in one of the legal challenges. “This has nothing to do with racism or wanting to keep people out. It’s about whether the infrastructure can support these units.”
To enforce its growth-share approach and satisfy the Supreme Court, COAH instituted a kind of backup system. It estimated 115,666 new affordable units are needed by 2018 to satisfy demand; using a statewide analysis of vacant land, historical building permit data and predicted job growth, it then estimated future growth for each town and assigned a share of the affordable units.
Although towns would not technically have to build any units unless they actually grow, officials must file a report with COAH detailing how they will meet the presumed obligation and change their zoning to ensure it could happen.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Michael Cerra of the League of Municipalities. “You zone for it, and it will come.”
The state argued in its papers that requiring towns to plan for the growth is proof the new rules will not allow them to exclude the poor.
That was a response to groups like the New Jersey Builders Association, which argued allowing towns not to grow was a direct contradiction of more than 30 years of Supreme Court rulings that say every town has an obligation to accept a fair share of housing for the poor.
In its own filing, the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center in South Jersey argued towns have never resisted affordable housing more vehemently.
“Municipal desire to exclude has increased,” said Kevin Walsh of Fair Share. “Municipal desire to discourage schoolchildren from moving in is at an all-time high.”
Things got ugly in the case last month, when the league lashed out at COAH, accusing it of withholding a report that appeared to show deep flaws in the way the state calculates vacant land. Stuart Koenig, a longtime league lawyer representing 20 towns, said analysis by four counties showed highway interchanges, the green in front of the Warren County Courthouse, warehouses, corporate and college campuses, prisons and cemeteries were listed as vacant.
Doria, the community affairs commissioner who served as COAH’s chairman, denied there was any intent to hide the report and said the state will correct any errors towns points out.
Koenig argued the deck is so stacked against towns that it would be nearly impossible to get a vacant-land adjustment from COAH. He said towns trying to meet the numbers will have to zone inappropriately for high-rises or other high-density development.
“Municipalities are being compelled to provide unreasonable affordable housing numbers on flawed methodology,” he said.