The Star Ledger

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie creates task force to review affordable housing

By Lisa Fleisher/Statehouse Bureau
February 09, 2010, 4:54PM

TRENTON -- Gov. Chris Christie today froze nearly all actions by a state board charged with implementing affordable housing policy, creating a task force to study the issue and taking his own stab at a process already under the knife by the Legislature.

Christie signed an executive order today creating a committee, which he calls the Housing Opportunity Task Force, to figure out how to provide affordable and "workforce" housing while considering the environment and open space. The order says the committee should evaluate renovations of crumbling housing instead of new construction and assess the state's current system.

"This has been a mess, an absolute mess, that we have allowed to linger on," Christie said of the affordable housing process. He said he had a message for New Jersey's municipalities: "Their COAH nightmare is over."

Christie's order also halts all work by the Council on Affordable Housing, known as COAH, unless the acting commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs decides it would jeopardize the opportunity to create affordable housing. The council was scheduled to rule today on plans in five towns: Demarest and River Vale in Bergen County; Haddonfield in Camden County; Manalapan in Monmouth County and Pine Beach in Ocean County.

The action drew fire from affordable housing advocates, who called the order illegal, and praise from municipal groups and attorneys. The order also could have ramifications on current court challenges to the council's rules, said representatives of those involved.

Former state Sen. Marcia Karrow, a Hunterdon County Republican who will be the chair of the committee, said towns' affordable housing needs and desires cannot effectively be addressed by the state.

"The state has to stop the one-size-fits-all mentality," she said.

Throughout his campaign and into his time as governor, Christie has said he wanted to "gut" the council but he has given little detail about what that means. The executive order calls the council's procedures "excessively complex and unworkable." It says the "delays and controversy" over the current methods "strongly suggest" there are better ways to go.

Meanwhile, the state Senate has been holding hearings on a bill that would dismantle the housing council and provide a way for towns to determine whether their development and zoning plans meet a state standard for affordable housing levels.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the bill's sponsor, said he welcomes Christie's actions but said the Legislature will likely act before the governor receives his report.

"It's going to be hard to improve upon once we come out with it," Lesniak said. "I'm certainly not going to wait for 90 days for it. There's no need for that."

Lesniak said that next week he will fill in some of the blanks he said he intentionally left in the proposed bill -- including the standard towns have to meet to be considered in compliance with affordable housing requirements. He said he will meet with Christie's committee and explain his proposed system, which he said will be a "huge improvement."

"It's going to advance the economy, create jobs and affordable housing," Lesniak said.

New Jersey’s current approach stems from the state Supreme Court’s 1975 and 1983 Mount Laurel decisions, which are named for the Burlington County township that was sued. The court said every resident is entitled to access to affordable housing.

A decade later, the state passed the Fair Housing Act and created the housing council to implement policy. Critics of the policy say the models for determining the need for housing are outdated and saddle cities and towns with unnecessary extra housing and residents — and the accompanying cost of providing services to them.

And implementation has been challenged legally and criticized at nearly every turn, with builders challenging towns' zoning to allow them to build affordable units, and lawyers alternately arguing the state has set too high or too low a bar for how many affordable units must be built.

Jeff Surenian, a lawyer who represents municipalities on affordable housing matters, said he was awaiting a decision by the Appellate Court on a major case challenging the council's latest guidelines. On Dec. 1, the court heard oral arguments from the parties, which included builders, towns and the League of Municipalities.

"Are they going to decide the case or are they going to say, 'There's this executive order, let's hold off and wait to see what the governor and or the Legislature do'?" he said. "They could very well say, 'What are we breaking our necks trying to resolve all these issues? By the time we issue our opinion, we could have new rules.'"

The governor's actions enthralled municipal representatives while infuriating housing advocates.

Kevin Walsh, the associate director of Fair Share Housing Center, said Christie was flouting laws and court decisions by stopping the process.

"The governor is charged with executing the laws, not making them," he said. "The Executive Order defies the court's directives to adopt and implement regulations that comply with out state constitution."

Bill Dressel, executive director for the state League of Municipalities, a strong critic of the council and its rules, said the governor was calling a well deserved "time-out."

"I'm delighted," he said. "In the scheme of things, 90 days, that's not a lot of time, particularly for the fact that we've been at a stalemate."

Statehouse bureau reporter Claire Heininger contributed to this report.

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