Christie Administration Fails in New Affordable Housing Regulations

Diary rescue from Tuesday, with thanks to Yvette for an update on the continuing favoritism the Christie administration extends to New Jersey’s wealthy at the expense of lower-income NJ residents – and what housing advocates like Fair Share Housing Center are doing about it. Promoted by Rosi.

In 1985, following multiple state Supreme Court rulings that towns in New Jersey cannot exclude low- and moderate-income families through their planning and zoning powers, the New Jersey Legislature created the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). The Council, tasked with creating regulations on each municipality’s “fair share” of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income people, worked fairly well – with the notable exception of the since-outlawed Regional Contribution Agreements, which allowed wealthy towns to buy out of their fair share – through the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000, COAH has been attempting and failing to come up with a new installment of regulations. The latest proposal by COAH, currently going through the administrative rulemaking process, is another disastrous failure.

This is not surprising because Governor Christie has consistently taken the position that towns should be able to exclude low- and moderate-income people, even people who work in their town. In September 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the Christie Administration’s so-called “growth share” approach to making New Jersey’s fair housing laws optional, and charged the Council with coming up with rules that followed what worked in the 1980s and 1990s. COAH’s response was the latest third round rules, which were released – after unexplained delays – on April 30, 2014. A process for commenting on the rules just concluded on August 1, including a public hearing in July that was packed with a diverse array of opponents to the rules. The Christie Administration and COAH are now considering the comments, with a final deadline of November 17 to adopt final rules.

One key component of the latest rules is the buildable limit analysis, which claims to determine with scientific precision where in the State homes can be built, and where they cannot. This analysis, contracted to Rutgers University for $295,000 is rife with outrageous errors. A review of their process for evaluating buildable land in New Jersey illuminates a deeply troubling picture.

Fair Share Housing Center reviewed the original criteria used in this study in detail. First and foremost, the analysis does not factor in redevelopment potential. The redevelopment of previously existing buildings is a major component of New Jersey’s growth and an aspect that previous affordable housing regulations took into consideration. The research and policy group New Jersey Future analyzed building and population growth and found that recent development has been focused in areas where the least amount of empty developable land is available. Municipalities with less than ten percent of land available for development in 2007 accounted for 54.5 percent of the state’s total population growth from 2008 to 2012. By ignoring the redevelopment of existing sites in the newest round of rules, the Council fails to acknowledge the reality of New Jersey’s real estate.

To determine suitable land for development, the bulk of the analysis removes undevelopable lands such as wetlands, bodies of water, and preserved open space from the entire state’s land area. What remains is buildable land. While some of these environmental constraints appropriately protect our most sensitive lands, others create a double standard that Governor Christie is not applying to wealthy New Jerseyans. For example, the model assumes that no homes that low- and moderate-income people can afford can be built in 100-year flood plains. The 100-year flood plain excludes development in areas such as barrier islands throughout the Jersey Shore and a significant portion of municipalities, like Hoboken and Jersey City, experiencing rapid growth – the same places where Christie has encouraged rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. It is discriminatory to have a state policy that anything goes for the wealthy in such areas, but low- and moderate-income people cannot have a home there.

Another type of land included in the analysis was the Pinelands National Reserve. Along the border of the Pinelands are towns that are partially located within the reserve. In their analysis, COAH claimed that it included all of these towns’ lands within and bordering the Pinelands when calculating the need for affordable housing. In fact, it did not. Strangely, COAH only included the land within the Pinelands (highlighted in green in this map), and not the land outside of the Pinelands in these bordering towns (areas in red on map). In fact, all of the municipalities should have been included in their entirety. In this way, the buildable limit analysis excluded over 72,000 acres of developable land, including areas in Stafford, Little Egg Harbor, Galloway, Evesham, and Medford. Again, this analysis defies good environmental policy – encouraging building in the Pinelands but not outside of them – which is why there has been so much opposition from both housing advocates and environmentalists.

In a particularly bizarre and outrageous step, COAH claimed 10,000 parcels located throughout Central New Jersey – especially in Monmouth County – were actually located on one property in Jackson Township. This map shows in purple all of the property in central New Jersey that wrongly was coded as being in Jackson. According to Rutgers, a 2.41-acre parcel in Jackson Township occupies more than 34,000 acres in 55 municipalities. This resulted in the exclusion of more than 34,000 acres from consideration for developable land.

There are many troubling flaws in this study and some errors are so preposterous that one is forced to consider the possibility of deliberate manipulation. Without reviewing these files, which were obtained through an Open Public Records Act request by Fair Share, these glaring issues would have never been detected. We call for transparency in this analysis and the proposed regulations. The Christie Administration must respond to how these mistakes were overlooked in a study that serves more to block environmentally sound homes for low- and moderate-income New Jerseyans than encourage them.

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