The COAH Bluff, the Midas Touch, and New Jersey’s Fight for Affordable Housing

Everything was going along great for the New Jersey Legislature in its now jittery, ambling pursuit of affordable housing across the state. June was looking promising as the state legislature […]

Everything was going along great for the New Jersey Legislature in its now jittery, ambling pursuit of affordable housing across the state. June was looking promising as the state legislature was approached passage of the $32.9-billion state budget, and despite two-pronged concerns from an increasing number of localities — first over state guidelines, and second over commercial development fees to fund urban affordable housing — it looked like the Garden State was about to harvest a host of uniform housing mandates.

That is, until towns called the bluff. That's right folks, you heard it here first: the COAH Bluff. Back in May, we saw a trend that had long been in motion really get under way. COAH, short for Council on Affordable Housing, an arm of the state's Department of Community Affairs, was back, this time with a bona fide plan for municipal affordable-housing obligations.

Not five years ago, towns were racing to comply with COAH, but towns with very little developable land were scratching their heads, particularly in light of the fact that regional contribution agreements, where a town could pay off its affordable-housing obligation to another locality — typically a nearby urban locality — were likely going to become a thing of the past.

Well, not so fast. COAH, in 2007, was taken to task by the courts for using a faulty formula and had to revise its plan, unveiled late in 2007. But by that point, it was too late. Towns were emboldened. The formula, they said, were too uniform. After all, in the Garden State, it's not just dense urban and semi-urban areas; we do have swaths of open space, farms, sprawl — everything! One generic plan, the towns said, was not a statewide cure-all.

So COAH went on tour. Lucy Voorhoeve, COAH's executive director, with deputy in tow, appeared before any governing body that listened, and was basically told where DCA could put its affordable housing. Let me quote myself here from May:

To be sure, the state government wasn't draconian in its legislation: Towns got to feel good about affordable housing by maybe providing some units in some remote corner of their municipality, or, if it couldn’t provide there, it could send an RCA to some nearby poor community.

For a while, COAH was a force to be reckoned with. You stuck with COAH, and if you didnt, your town could face dreaded builders remedy and exclusionary-zoning lawsuits.

Well, with the economy what it is and developers not jumping willingly into the affordable and senior housing market, it turns out that some towns are feeling pretty empowered, calling the COAH Bluff.

And it's not just COAH. Just last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would use $20 million of monies raised from a 2.5-percent levy on the value of commercial development for urban affordable housing, thus getting rid of RCAs, or even the need for them, and allowing wealthier towns to set up their own affordable-housing plans.

This legislation, a hallmark of the incumbency of state Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Democrat of Camden, was touted as a leap forward. But not so fast.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities immediately pounced on the bill, saying that in a time of municipal tax caps (a four-percent increase for municipalities is the state-mandated limit), towns would have no choice but to use the property tax ATM to finance affordable-housing obligations. Roberts has reportedly said that these details would be worked out in the fall, but those opposed are skeptical.

So why wait for the fall for drama when we've got today? More than 100 towns have signed on to a legal challenge of the series of affordable-housing rules. The Star-Ledger reported Sunday that the new measures would cost towns throughout the state a combined estimated $6 billion to $7 billion over the next 10 years.

Bill sponsors are promising that the Legislature will establish an affordable housing trust fund in the fall — a move that Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Union Township Democrat, called a “one-stop shopping approach for affordable-housing dollars.”

But towns are right to be skeptical. After decades of stalled housing remedies, there is room for skepticism. However, in a state of home rule, where spending runs rampant with individual school districts from town to town, each with its own police, fire, and public works departments, perhaps a little uniformity, by way of affordable housing, is a good thing. But it's clear that this is not going to fly. The state of the COAH Bluff is strong.

Remember when Gov. Jon Corzine went on a 21-county, high school auditorium tour to sell his multibillion dollar package to restructure the state finances, AKA, his plan to hike highway tolls? That was a good way to get people to understand something they were otherwise vehemently opposed to. Perhaps Roberts and Lesniak should go on the road and tell people why their towns should invest in affordable housing, discuss the social benefits, and the long-term financial benefits.

Something's got to give after all this time, and if it doesn't, New Jersey's suburbs, replete with the Midas touch, will be forever turned into Golden Ghettos.

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