In a historic ruling today, the New Jersey Supreme Court gave a unanimous judgement that the State’s key affordable housing task force, the Council on Affordable Housing, has become dysfunctional and is no longer fit for its purpose. The Supreme Court has put all municipalities on notice that they must prove their compliance with their constitutional requirement to provide a fair share of affordable housing, or allow builders to add affordable housing under the supervision of the courts. How will this ruling affect Princeton?
Advocates for affordable housing are elated that the Supreme Court has removed a logjam from efforts to provide housing for people on low incomes. Kevin Walsh, of Cherry Hill-based ‘Fair Share Housing Center’ had this to say:
“Too many New Jersey municipalities exclude people who work in the stores and diners of New Jersey. We now have a way to make sure they are not excluded and to ensure there are fair housing opportunities for people who are forced to live far from their jobs and families and who have been displaced by Superstorm Sandy. The Court properly responded to the failure of the state government to implement the law.”
Governor Christie has tried to close down COAH, but the Supreme Court insisted that its members get together and draw up affordable housing obligations for each NJ municipality. The court also tossed out a previous effort to set affordable housing quotas based on a ‘Growth Share’ approach that was ruled unconstitutional. COAH repeatedly failed to adopt new affordable housing guidelines, despite regular demands from the court. Following a hearing in January, it seems that the judges have finally lost patience. They have decreed that COAH is out of business, and that builders will soon have the right to go directly to the courts to seek permission to ignore local zoning controls and build housing. Municipalities have a 90-day window to put together documents to show that they have made a serious effort to provide affordable housing and gain protection.
Municipal officials are likely to be falling over themselves to make sure that they get this protection from ‘builders remedy’ lawsuits. It will be an easier task for some municipalities than for others. Princeton is likely to succeed in convincing a judge that we have made a serious effort to provide housing. Our inventory of affordable housing is substantial, and we even approved developments such as AvalonBay, which were locally unpopular, but which will bring significant numbers of new affordable units.
The risk is that other nearby municipalities will be judged to be non-compliant with their housing obligations, offering builders the opportunity to add poorly-planned sprawl housing that will despoil open space and further add to car-dependent development. Hopewell Township, which shares a border with Princeton to the west, is potentially most at risk, having canceled potential affordable housing plans such as the proposed Pennytown development. Hopewell could take a step to getting off the hook by approving a proposed development at Scotch Road, but opposition is building and it seems that many residents would rather roll the dice in the courts. Both Princeton Township (in the 1980s) and West Windsor (in the 90s) were forced to build affordable housing by the courts because of a failure to provide affordable units.
It is also possible that the Assembly will step in with new legislation to reanimate the apparently lifeless COAH agency. With such a complicated issue, however, it seems unlikely that a quick fix is at hand. Today’s ruling was certainly momentous, and is likely to have significant impacts on local planning and development. We have to hope that development can be geared in the most walkable and transit-friendly ways possible.
What’s your take on today’s affordable housing ruling? Do you welcome the prospect of new affordable housing? Or fear its effect on the local environment? Have your say in the comments section below.