Sierra Club: Court Decision Shows State Needs to Act on Affordable Housing

Court Decision Shows State Needs to Act on Affordable Housing

A recent court ruling has reaffirmed the responsibility of towns in New Jersey to provide affordable housing. Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson affirmed that Princeton and West Windsor must meet fair housing needs totaling more than 155,000 units. This decision echoes that of many other Supreme Court decisions over the past few years to force municipalities into upholding their affordable housing obligations. Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, released the following statement:

“Towns’ obligations to build affordable housing is the law of the land. The courts have strongly reaffirmed that towns must meet their affordable housing obligations, especially wealthy ones like Princeton and West Windsor. The reason the court has taken over and made this ruling on Affordable Housing is because the Christie Administration failed to do their job and created a disaster when it comes to affordable housing. Now towns must come forward with plan that allow for affordable housing and also protect the environment. If the towns do not do this, developers can sue them under builder remedy lawsuits. These are not good for affordable housing or the environment.

“Affordable housing and court decisions determine land use patterns in New Jersey for generations to come more than anything else. Unless we ensure that we have appropriate rules that balance the need for affordable housing and the environment we will end up promoting sprawl and overdevelopment in our last remaining open spaces. We support affordable housing and believe every town must meet their obligations, but they must do it in a way that minimizes environmental impacts. We hope the courts will agree with this and towns will plan accordingly to prevent sprawl.

“The courts have ruled that if a town protects the environment, they don’t have to build housing on that location. Town could be passing steep slope ordinances and other regulations that remove these areas from sewer service areas to avoid building there. We must utilize existing infrastructure, as well as prohibit building in environmentally sensitive areas and commit to smart growth. That means we should not be extending sewers in new areas and prohibit development near endangered species. We should not be building on toxic sites or be putting people in flood prone areas.

“A town’s affordable housing obligation should be based on actual growth, not vacant land. By doing it the opposite way, towns such as West Milford in the middle of the Highlands Preservation Area end up with a higher affordable housing obligation than a place like Hoboken. Part of this problem is that we don’t look at redevelopment. It means that towns building luxury high-rises in urban areas who push out people of modest means without any obligation. For example, Jared Kushner is building a 90-story high-rise in Jersey City that does not require any affordable housing. We should be looking at growth as a measurement for affordable housing to preserve environmentally sensitive areas and prevent gentrification.

“There are many ways to get around building on environmentally sensitive lands while still meeting affordable housing obligations. Municipalities can use infill housing, group homes, or accessory apartments. They can buy foreclosed homes and underwater mortgages and rent them out. They can encourage multi-family units and create an automatic set-aside of 20% of new developments for affordable housing. Towns can even create fees on commercial and office park development to help pay for this.

“For far too long, towns wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to build box stores or McMansions on corn fields but didn’t have the land for affordable housing. If they can build ratables, them they can build affordable housing. The failure of the Christie administration to adopt appropriate and legal third round rules for COAH put every town in New Jersey in jeopardy. Christie personally vetoed bills to fix COAH and include environmental stipulations. Now that we have a new Administration, we need the Legislature and Governor Murphy to act. The State of New Jersey needs to come up with an Affordable Housing Plan. New Jersey can and must provide affordable housing to families without hurting the environment.”

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