Thanks to the Blue Jersey community as housing fight stretches into new year

This was posted just before Christmas. I have to say, this year Fair Share Housing Center has told its story very well at Blue Jersey, and we thank them for that. – promoted by Rosi

It has been quite a year for housing policy in New Jersey. After at least six different versions of housing legislation, one Executive Order that only stood for 10 days before a court injunction, and two other key court decisions, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) remains in place, and housing policy in New Jersey has an uncertain future. Here’s a look at where we’ve been, where we are going, and the excellent grass roots organizing by so many groups – including the BlueJersey community – that have impacted the past year and will be critical in 2011.

Gov. Christie, of course, promised to “gut COAH” during the 2009 Republican primary to his conservative base. It didn’t come up so much in the general election, perhaps because polls shows that most New Jerseyans support having a range of housing choices in every community. Still, replacing COAH was a goal that most people could agree on as the agency, despite a competent and intelligent staff, had been manipulated due to various politically motivated changes in policy over the past decade.

the ugly details below

But somewhere along the line, “replacing COAH” started to mean different things to different people. To housing advocates, civil rights groups, religious leaders, environmental groups, and the special needs and mental health community, it meant replacing COAH with a simple and effective system to build homes and overcome exclusionary regulations where development was appropriate. To some municipalities with a history of exclusion, “replacing COAH” meant allowing them to put in place exclusionary regulations to stop starter homes, no matter how draconian, under the guise of “home rule.”

The latter approach had the upper hand during the first half of 2010 – with Sen. Lesniak introducing and getting the Senate to pass the now-infamous original version of S-1 and Gov. Christie appointing a task force which recommended returning to a system already invalidated as unconstitutional by the courts and widely opposed by everyone from civil rights groups to homebuilders. But then the Assembly, responding to an avalanche of constituent pressure and the leadership of Speaker Oliver, Majority Leader Cryan, and Housing and Local Government Committee Chair and Vice-Chair Green and Jasey, decided to hold the bill for changes instead of passing S-1 before the Legislature recessed for the summer.

Fast forward six months. When we last visited this drama, the Assembly had passed, in a straight party line vote, A-3447 – a bill that would abolish the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) and replace it with a simpler system that would significantly reduce municipal housing obligations. We opposed the bill due to that reduction, but also recognized the efforts of Asm. Green, Asw. Jasey, Speaker Oliver, and Majority Leader Cryan in crafting a bill that was a marked improvement over all of its predecessors.

The bill, however, did garner significant support – in what seemed like a miracle in a year-long debate that has been filled with groups constantly opposing everything proposed. An influential constituency emerged in support of the bill – consisting of pretty much all of New Jersey’s business community, various non-profit housing groups including the Housing and Community Development Network, the New Jersey Regional Coalition, and all of the major special needs groups in the state, among others. The Assembly Democrats touted the bill as a major accomplishment, and everything was set for a vote in the Senate this Monday.

And then that vote didn’t happen. Gov. Christie called the bill “a joke” – apparently considering reductions of 50% of more in municipal housing obligations insufficent – and Sen. Lesniak said that he would be considering changes to the Assembly bill and bringing it up for a vote in January. Christie asked for the Legislature to reconsider Lesniak’s original bill – even though it had long since been repudiated as unconstitutional and faced the aforementioned wall of opposition.

What happens next is – well, uncertain. A Senate vote could come on January 6, on the Assembly bill or some set of amendments to that bill. There could be a deal reached with the Governor, or a veto. If the bill looks anything like the original S-1 in the end, the courts will probably strike it down and send things back to square one. And if nothing new is enacted into law, COAH has a March 8 deadline to come up with new rules that they are already on pace to miss, which could leave municipalities vulnerable to lawsuits from builders.

The good news is that the movement against the original S-1 was one of the true grass roots success stories in a year in which many other important issues suffered serious setbacks. Instead of caving into Gov. Christie and Sen. Lesniak, legislative leadership ultimately stood strong – and gained credibility with a diverse array of groups, from the mental health community to the business community. The 100+ grass roots groups that fought S-1 did a great job and stopped what the Asbury Park Press called a “runaway train.”

The bad news is that we still aren’t there. Almost $300 million sits unspent in housing trust funds that could be used to help jumpstart the economy and meet the demand of people looking for a decent place to live (the Assembly bill has a pretty strong requirement to spend these funds quickly). And both non-profit and for-profit builders who want to build starter homes are facing more barriers than ever – a recent report found that Route 1 Corridor municipalities’ zoning is so strict that they only allow 1 house to be built for every 13 jobs that could be created.

We thank the BlueJersey community for your critical support in this fight throughout all of 2010 – and look forward to working together in 2011, towards a housing policy that is good for the economy, working families of all backgrounds, seniors, people with special needs, and the environment. And we hope that you’ll consider a modest donation to our small but effective organization in your year-end giving so we can continue this work next year.

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