Princeton has teamed up with four other municipalities from Mercer County in a bid to reduce the amount of state-mandated affordable housing that must be built in town. The town has entered a syndicate, called the ‘Mercer County Municipal Group’ (MCMG), with Hopewell Twp, Lawrence Twp, West Windsor, and East Windsor. These towns will attempt to justify building less affordable housing than what is being recommended by the Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill, NJ-based non-profit. The MCMG towns will take the case to trial in Mercer Superior Court, Even as other New Jersey towns have agreed housing settlements out of court, the MCMG towns are insisting on a legal fight in Mercer Superior Court, in a case that is expected to influence the amount of affordable housing that is built throughout New Jersey.
On December 19, 2016, Princeton Council unanimously passed Resolution 16-359, which authorized spending $200 per hour each on a panel of lawyers. The resolution provides for contracts to contest affordable housing numbers in court, which were awarded without bidding to lead attorneys Jeffrey Surenian and Edward Buzak. In addition to ‘assisting’ with local affordable housing numbers, Mr Surenian has also led a bid to eliminate state affordable housing requirements from 1999-2016. In a recent article in the ‘NJ Law Journal’, Surenian questioned whether the statewide need for affordable housing should take precedence over local zoning, a principle that has held since the Civil Rights-era Mount Laurel rulings.
Hamilton Township, which was originally a member of the MCMG syndicate, has withdrawn after agreeing a settlement. Robbinsville and Ewing have also negotiated settlements. In Ocean County, every municipality settled instead of fightin in court. In Middlesex County, every municipality except South Brunswick settled, and South Brunswick lost its case very badly. Because most municipalities have previously agreed to settle, Princeton’s decision to fight in court will set a precedent for other New Jersey towns. Princeton taxpayers’ money will therefore be funding an effort to reduce the amount of affordable housing not just in Princeton, or even just Mercer County, but throughout the entire state. The trial was expected to start on Monday, January 9, but was temporarily postponed because of a burst water main at the courthouse in Trenton.
Princeton Council will discuss affordable housing litigation in closed session at their meeting on Monday January 9. The trial is expected to last for weeks. Efforts to undermine New Jersey’s affordable housing laws have been condemned by the NAACP and Latino Action Network, who late last year issued a press release stating:
At heart, New Jersey’s fair-housing laws aren’t just about building homes. They’re also about expanding ladders of opportunity to the middle class for the many thousands of families who are priced out of our state’s many thriving communities. While our state boasts some of the most desirable towns in the nation, longstanding patterns of exclusionary zoning have shut too many New Jersey families out of the American Dream. These unconstitutional obstacles have hit minority communities — especially African-Americans and Latinos — the hardest.
Lance Liverman, the Princeton Council liaison to the Affordable Housing Board, has still not responded to our request for comment.