BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Monday conditionally vetoed legislation that he claims fails to change how affordable housing is provided in New Jersey.
The governor said the Democratic-amended legislation falls far short of its original intent by creating a new bureaucracy and continuing and increasing an unnecessary burden on local governments.
"If the goal of this legislation is to replace an already broken system for providing affordable housing with a common sense, predictable and achievable process, then this bill sorely misses the mark," Christie said. "The Senate has presented a considerably different version of the legislation I originally supported in June – one that was simple and sufficiently close to the recommendations contained in the March 19, 2010, report of the Housing Opportunity Task Force.
"This version perpetuates the Council on Affordable Housing nightmare by placing further burdens on municipalities and the environment while creating rather than eliminating additional bureaucracies in order to satisfy the needs of special interests," the governor declared. "I believe this bill should be amended to return it to its original, beneficial form as passed by the Senate in June."The original version of bill S-1 passed by the Senate in June called for eliminating COAH and the affordable housing numbers it assigned to cities and towns requiring that 1 out of every 10 newly constructed housing units be designated as affordable. Towns with no open space remaining would have no further affordable housing obligation other than to inventory and rehabilitate its existing affordable housing stock. The measure limited state review of municipal housing plans, protected against builder's remedy lawsuits for local governments, and eliminated commercial development fees, though residential development fees were permitted to be charged if a developer chose not to build affordable units on-site and decided to pay the residential development fee instead.
Christie called these Democratic-sponsored amendments to the bill unacceptable. It requires 10 percent of all the new housing units in every municipality in the state to be affordable, necessitates that 25 percent of the affordable housing obligation be met by inclusionary development, legislates sprawl by increasing the amount of mandated new housing by 500 percent to 700 percent.
The governor also dislikes that the measure creates a new regulated entity to review a municipality's housing plans, would cause towns to have to pay for two planners – one to draft the plan, and the other to certify it meets the requirements of the bill, provides no meaningful protection against builder's remedy lawsuits, and requires towns in the Highlands, Pinelands, Fort Monmouth and Meadowlands districts to have 15 percent to 20 percent of all new construction as affordable.
Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union) sponsored the lower house version of the bill. He said that in the conditional veto, Christie is seeking the original version of the legislation that was judged unconstitutional by the state Office of Legislative Services and imposed a 2.5 percent fee on businesses. Green said his version was deemed constitutional and lowered the fee to 1.5 percent
The governor has now made it clear that he supports unconstitutional legislation that imposes higher fees on New Jersey businesses," Green said. “The last thing New Jersey and its economy needs is unworkable laws that force businesses to pay higher taxes, but that’s exactly what the governor has endorsed with this unfortunate decision. Our bill was backed by a broad range of businesses, housing advocates, legal experts and local officials who understood it was the best way to provide housing for working class residents, create jobs and spark the economy. The governor, sadly, wants higher business taxes and a court fight. That accomplishes nothing.”
Staci Berger, director of policy and advocacy for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said, "We are disappointed by the governor's decision to conditionally veto the compromise version of this legislation. After more than year of hard work and negotiation, his actions take New Jersey in the wrong direction.
"This is a huge step backwards and a move that New Jersey can't afford," Berger said. "Governor Christie's veto of the housing bill brings it back to its unconstitutional form that will not create any new homes or jobs. Our Legislature recognized the flaws in the original S.1 which is why they worked tirelessly to improve it. We hope they will stand up for New Jersey's families and seniors who need homes they can afford and reject the governor's veto."
Bill Dressel, New Jersey State League of Municipalities director, said local officials appreciate Christie’s veto action.
“The governor’s action protects municipalities and taxpayers from unreasonable obligations, and is in the best interest of the state,” Dressel said. “The League of Municipalities has long championed a rational, reasonable and sustainable solution to the state’s affordable housing policies. For a very long time S-1 held such promise, but as the process went on and special interests weighed in, the bill changed dramatically for the worse.”
Dressel said the bill would increase the obligation for affordable housing from the Council on Affordable Housing’s obligation of approximately 190,000 units to 230,000. He said in the first ten-year housing cycle contemplated by the bill, the number of units required is estimated at 48,491. The second ten-year housing cycle obligation, in the bill would have risen the first cycle of 48,491 to an additional 62,647 affordable units, with an additional 37,300 carried over into the third housing cycle.
Dressel said the bill would have required municipalities to provide 25 percent of their obligation through inclusionary development, which would require a reliance on market rate units. He said that further, the bill would have mandated densities of between 6 and 50 units per acre in inclusionary projects. These requirements would lead to sprawl.
“Even compliant municipalities could face litigation,” Dressel said. “A challenge to the municipal plan of compliance would have taken the form of a trial in the Law Division of the Superior Court, much in the same way that municipalities are now subject to builder’s remedy litigation if they do not participate in the COAH process or seek a declaratory judgment of compliance."
Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Cherry-Hill based Fair Share Housing Center, said Christie wants the Legislature to adopt revisions that would allow cities and towns to exclude lower-income households.
“His proposed amendments would allow municipalities to determine their housing obligations and would reimpose growth share, a failed system that has been rejected twice by the courts as unconstitutional because it allowed municipalities to avoid their regional low- and moderate-income housing obligations,” Walsh said. “If the governor's proposed amendments become law, New Jersey's housing policy will be set back four decades.
“In New Jersey, most wealthy, job-rich towns do everything they can to keep out regular working folks who are bus drivers, waitresses, and public employees,” Walsh said. “The governor has sided with wealthy towns that unreasonably prevent starter homes and apartments from being built. The legislation he proposed violates the Mount Laurel doctrine, is bad for our economy, and would be rejected by the courts."
Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director, described the veto as a step in the right direction, but added that the governor should have vetoed the entire bill.
"The bill in its current form would promote sprawl and overdevelopment," Tittel said. "The governor was right in vetoing the mandatory set aside and mandating zoning densities. In this legislation towns would have to build between 10 and 50 units per acre and areas under 5,000 people per square acre they have to build 6 to 20 units per acre. We agree with removing the requirement that 10 percent of housing in New Jersey has to be affordable and removing the mandating set asides for the Highlands and Pinelands. Other areas where we agree include protecting towns from builder remedy lawsuits and not having towns pay for two planners. Designating affordable housing as "inherently beneficial" will put towns at the mercy of developers. Developers will be able to use the inherently beneficial designation to overturn local zoning."
Commenting on the conditional veto, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union) said only, "Perhaps we would be best served simply by letting the courts weigh in on the matter again.”