New Jersey is like every other state in that it has an ever-increasing poor population and not nearly enough low-income housing. Since 1990 the state’s overcrowded housing units have increased 50 percent, and 400,000 New Jersey renters now spend 30 percent or more of their income on shelter. The l975 Mount Laurel decision, the Fair Housing Act, and the resulting Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) were designed to address the situation. In theory, they were to guide individual municipalities into increasing and fairly distributing the number of low-income houses.
Alas, COAH’s progress has proved muddled and slow. But proposed COAH regulations, and the Assembly-approved Roberts Bill, may totally change all municipalities’ low-income construction strategies. Attorney Tom Carroll of Hill Wallack (www.hillwallack.com) will discuss the proposed legislature and the two volumes of COAH changes before the New Jersey Bankers’ Association on Wednesday, July 16, at 9 a.m. at Hill Wallack’s offices, 202 Carnegie Center. The event is open and free, but limited to the first 25 registrants. Visit www.njbankers.– com or call 609-520-1221.
Carroll came into law right on the cusp of the low-income housing issue. A native of Jersey City, he attended Rutgers, earning his bachelor’s in environmental science in 1979, and later his law degree. Carroll clerked for Judge Anthony Gibson, one of the “Three Mount Laurel Judges,” selected to handle the litigation resulting from the initial Mount Laurel decision in l975. Within a year, the state passed Mount Laurel II — the Fair Housing Act — which placed constitutional responsibility on municipalities to provide adequate low-income housing. And COAH, created by this law, was to determine which towns were to provide how much.
Gibson and Carroll worked to adjudicate trials and uphold the Mount Laurel decision, which stated that municipal zoning ordinances must not exclude low- and moderate-income families. In l984 Caroll moved to Hill Wallack, where he now serves as land use council to the New Jersey Builders Association.
“It’s a problem that just seems beyond a government’s most noble and ardent efforts,” says Carroll. Governor Jon Corzine and the new COAH regulations would open up another 115,000 low/moderate housing units. Calculations of the current need range from 700,000 to 800,000 units required. But even these seemingly modest plans are meeting with trouble and resistance
COAH’s plight. COAH regulations are voluntary. All towns must obey the Mount Laurel decision and the Fair Housing Act. COAH merely offers some formulae for providing the proper amounts of low/moderate housing, with one big advantage. Municipalities following the COAH code are automatically immune from builder’s lawsuits, which can claim the town is not offering its fair share. This benefit has seemed worthwhile to the 250 municipalities that have adopted COAH formulas, but the solutions remain muddy.
COAH is unfortunately only one in a sea of state and federal regulatory agencies, each giving its own mandates that cannot be ignored. A town may plan 140 low-income units only to have the DEP come in and say, “not in this environmentally fragile area.” Or the site planners might veto it with “not in this low-density mandated area.” Those major portions of the state falling under the Pinelands, HIghlands, and other preservations commissions, must yield to their specific guidelines. “In short you have agencies all tripping over each other’s feet,” says Carroll.
The Roberts Bill. On June 16 the state Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Speaker Joe Roberts (D-Camden) that would end regional contributions agreements, or RCAs between municipalities. The Senate passed an identical bill that goes to Governor Corzine. If the governor signs the bill, one municipality would no longer be able to pay another municipality to shoulder some of its low-income housing obligations.
As it stands now, COAH has divided the state into six districts. The sender, typically a well-off suburban community, may send a set amount of RCAs to any receiving municipality (typically an urban one) municipality in its district. The deal gets sealed with the sender contributing a hefty check to support the urban area’s low-income renewal project.
“The whole goal of the Mount Laurel Decision was to open up the suburbs and make all New Jersey affordable. Selling your obligations undermines it,” says Carroll. For good or ill, the Roberts bill also proposes yet another government agency. While its mission remains a little hazy in relation to COAH, this new agency would act as referee between all other state agencies in an effort to remove low-income housing construction obstacles.
COAH proposals. After six months of pubic hearings COAH has sent the letters out to the mayors. “While there is more debate, barring something really unforeseen, these proposals will be the new COAH regulations coming out this fall,” says Carroll. One confusing aspect of current COAH regulations that few will be sad to see pass is the removal of what builders call the “pseudo-density bonus.”
Theoretically, builders receive bonuses for each low-income unit constructed according to the municipality’s mandated density zones. But the formula’s intricacies frequently leave builders with no more credits than they started with before building their units.
COAH plans to tackle the density-versus-income problem by creating a five-level density scale. For example, communities with an Area 1 density (eight units or more per acre) may be required to provide 25 percent of their new houses as low/moderate income dwellings. Meanwhile, an Area 5 with maybe 40 percent fewer homes, may have to provide only 20 percent of such units.
A third fix is COAH’s boosting of bonus credits for towns building low income within redevelopment areas. If a municipality builds 100 units within a redeveloped brownfield, transit village, or formerly blighted neighborhood, it may qualify for 133 low income bonus credits. Building low/moderate units within a half mile of a transit facility also gives this extra one-third credit to the municipality.
Even if all these new plans go swimmingly and all New Jersey’s municipalities comply to the best of their ability, Carroll remains dubious as to the total effect. “We are a growing state with a desperate need for shelter,” he says. “I only hope that we can work out a way to give it to our residents.”