Resolving a lawsuit that alleged that one of the nation’s most exclusive towns had for decades enforced exclusionary zoning policies that excluded working families and people of color, the Borough of Saddle River agreed this week to create nearly 150 new affordable homes in a settlement with Fair Share Housing Center.
A 5-acre Bergen County estate formerly owned by legendary actress and comedian Rosie O’Donnell, and two adjoining lots, will be converted into a new inclusionary development with eight homes affordable to working families as part of a landmark fair housing agreement approved by local officials Feb. 10.
Officials also pledged to work with developers on three new 100 percent affordable developments totaling 127 homes to help satisfy Saddle River’s obligation to provide housing for working families and people with disabilities as part of the New Jersey Constitution’s affordable housing requirements, known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine. Another property to be developed by the same entity behind the Rosie O’Donnell project will create another 12 affordable homes nearby.
The settlement represents an abrupt change in course for the wealthy town, which had just begun a high-stakes trial to determine its affordable housing obligations.
“This landmark settlement agreement will give working families, particularly people of color, the chance to move into one of America’s wealthiest towns,” said Fair Share Housing Center Executive Director Adam Gordon, who negotiated the settlement agreement along with Staff Attorneys Joshua Bauers and Bassam Gergi. “It shows that aggressive enforcement of New Jersey’s fair housing laws is important to bring towns to the table and end decades of exclusionary land-use policies.”
The borough’s decision to reach a settlement to establish its fair housing obligation comes a month after another wealthy Bergen County town, Englewood Cliffs, was stripped of its local land use powers by a state Superior Court judge, who found that the town had violated the Mount Laurel doctrine by failing to permit the construction of a single affordable home in more than 40 years. Englewood Cliffs had rejected numerous attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with housing advocates and insisted on going to trial to determine its fair housing obligations.
Instead, Saddle River has joined the more than 300 other towns across the state that have settlements in place that establish their fair housing obligations, enabling the construction of tens of thousands of new homes for working families and people with disabilities in towns that have access to good schools and jobs.
These settlements came in the wake of a unanimous 2015 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that revitalized enforcement of New Jersey’s fair housing laws by turning over enforcement to the state Superior Court.
As part of the settlement, Saddle River officials agreed to strict timelines for construction of affordable units to ensure that working families will be able to move into the borough in the next few years.
“A substantial portion of Saddle River’s housing stock will be accessible to working families when this settlement is fully implemented. This settlement provides a strong example of how the Mount Laurel doctrine can be used to tackle longstanding problems of racial segregation and socioeconomic exclusion that plague our state,” Gordon said. “The process established by the New Jersey Supreme Court is working after 15 years of gridlock over how to create affordable homes in New Jersey. Towns are dismantling generations of exclusionary policies and finally tackling our state’s housing affordability crisis.”