BY TOM HESTER SR.
A Christie administration cabinet member Thursday urged the Democratic-controlled Legislature to approve legislation that would change the way affordable housing is provided before it recesses for the summer, an action presently set for June 28.
Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa made the first public comment that Gov. Chris Christie wants to see the bipartisan legislation (S-1) sent to his desk before the Legislature adjourns.
"We are uniquely poised to address this conflicted issue, but time is precious," Grifa told the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee at a hearing in Trenton. "Further delay is unnecessary and puts real reform at risk."The committee did not take a vote on the bill, which means a second hearing would be necessary before it could be sent to the full Assembly for a vote.
Assemblyman Gerald B. Green (D-Union) said he will consult with lower house Democratic leaders on the next step.
Currently, the only date remaining for Assembly committee meetings is June 24. The Assembly has scheduled voting sessions for Monday and June 28.
Virtually every affordable housing organization in New Jersey opposes the legislation in its present form, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate.
"The governor's goals are simple," Grifa said. "First, end COAH (the state Council on Affordable Housing) and the madness of the arbitrary quota system that paid dividends to lawyers and planners, cost towns thousands of dollars, and stymied sensible growth. Second, empower municipalities to make their own decisions about land use and housing on a local level. Third, create clear guidelines for affordable housing that encourage achievable results."
The legislation would abolish COAH and change how affordable housing is built by taking control from policy makers in Trenton and giving it to municipal officials. Municipalities would have an obligation to set aside some of their new development for low and moderate-income housing, and towns that have complied with the existing regulations would be protected from builders' remedy lawsuits.
State involvement would be limited to the Department of Community Affairs providing an acknowledgment to those municipalities seeking to be deemed inclusionary under the affordable housing standards set forth in the legislation.
Representatives from New Jersey's association of community economic development organizations also urged the committee to act but it was to start over and develop a housing policy they could support.
A large number of people spoke against the legislation while five spoke in favor of it.
Staci Berger, director of policy and advocacy for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey thanked Assembly Democratic leaders for promising to seek input from all sides on the legislation.
"We have heard many of our state's elected leaders, including Senator Lesniak and Governor Christie, say that New Jersey needs more housing choices near transportation centers and where the jobs are,'' Berger said. "We agree. Unfortunately S1, the proposal adopted by the Senate, and the similar ideas put forth by the Governor will not lead to this result.
"The Legislature needs to start from scratch, so that our state's housing policy does not reward towns that ignored the law, or create unfair distinctions among towns. The "inclusionary" definition outlined in S.1 is not based on actual affordability but based as a percentage of townhouses and condos, even if they are expensive. We need real affordability definitions. Towns must meet their fair share by building new homes and rehabbing old ones. Letting developers make a small payment for minor rehabilitation instead of creating new housing will not create the homes our residents need.
"We recognize that changes are needed to the COAH process,'' Berger said. "We need a policy that plans for our future in order to link homes, jobs, transportation and environmental protection in a way that gets us sound, sustainable economic growth.
"Simply put, every town must do its fair share to provide an opportunity for residents of all income levels. Towns that have been doing this all along should be rewarded. Towns that have not should be encouraged to do so, and penalized if they continue to drag their feet.''
Kevin D. Walsh, associate director of the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, told the committee he was denied the opportunity to comment on the legislation at five Senate hearings.
"The problems with S-1 begin with the process by which it passed the Senate and extend all the way to the recently added provisions of the legislation that permit developers and municipalities to provide no new affordable units despite substantial housing growth by simply arranging $10,000 grants,'' Walsh said. "Organizations with longtime and unquestioned commitments to social justice, such as the Catholic Conference and the NAACP, have opposed S-1 because it would undermine the Mount Laurel doctrine and strengthen the hand of municipalities that have shut their doors to lower-income New Jerseyans.
"It is my hope that today's hearing begins an honest and inclusive dialogue about a new housing policy that produces homes for people at all ranges of the income spectrum and that links housing with jobs and transit,'' Walsh said. "New Jersey's housing policy should provide opportunities for everyone, including people who don't already live in the town where the housing is built and want to find better opportunities for their kids - or people who want to move back to the town where they grew up. New Jersey's housing policy should promote racial and economic integration in housing and should provide a good balance of housing for families of all incomes ...''
The Housing and Community Development Network is the statewide association of more than 250 community economic development organizations, individuals and allied groups that support creating homes and economic opportunities for all of New Jerseyans.
Bridgewater Mayor Patricia Flannery and East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov represented the New Jersey State League of Municipalities at the hearing.
Flannery and Mironov spoke in support for the legislation, but offered suggestions to improve it. They said the municipal officials want to avoid burdensome bureaucracy. They said the League supports a sustainable housing policy for all cities and towns.
"We commend Chairman Green for holding today's hearing,'' William G. Dressel, League director, said. "Not only did he allow all interested parties to speak, but the hearing today debunked many misconceptions and fallacies about these bills. S-1 and A-2930 (the Assembly version) may be still works in progress and we agree that it's more important to get the bills right, but we believe this can and should be accomplished by June 30."