Affordable housing overhaul gets Assembly OK, but journey not over

By: - February 12, 2024 5:11 pm

The Assembly approved in the bill in a party-line vote, but the legislation is likely to see more, possibly limited, changes. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

The Assembly approved a bill overhauling the state’s affordable housing system Monday after more than an hour of debate that saw Republicans warning about the legislation’s unintended effects and Democrats emphasizing the state’s need for more housing.

“Today’s vote is good news for New Jersey families who are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing housing costs,” said Adam Gordon, executive director of Fair Share Housing Center. “This legislation puts New Jersey on a path toward historic gains in affordable housing production over the next decade.”

The chamber approved the bill in a 51-28 vote that fell entirely along party lines despite a raft of amendments meant to address local officials’ concerns that the overhauled affordable housing system would leave towns with no realistic path to meeting their obligations.

Republicans caution the changes would, over time, increase residents’ tax bills. Some urged the state to do away with a constitutional doctrine — known as the Mt. Laurel Doctrine — that requires municipalities to provide an opportunity for low- and moderate-income housing.

“We must address property taxes and affordability. That’s the solution, not this bill,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Warren), the chamber’s minority leader.

But Democrats said the revamp is needed as the state faces a deficit of more than 200,000 affordable housing units and an aging population.

“We want people to stay and thrive in New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor. “Having access to affordable housing is key to that goal.”

Last week, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a series of amendments to the bill meant to address criticism from municipal officials who expressed concern about too much development and said legal protections in a past version of the measure were insufficient.

The amendments expand those protections, broadening legal immunity for municipalities that meet program deadlines to include all exclusionary zoning lawsuits, instead of only builder’s remedy lawsuits — a subset of exclusionary zoning suits that can force development without local approval.

Municipalities would still face legal challenges that turn on accusations they ignore provisions they agree to as part of their affordable housing plan or violate the Mt. Laurel Doctrine. In those cases, the bill would require challengers to prove a municipality’s plan or implementation violates the doctrine or agreement.

Though the amendments drew praise from the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, it’s not clear they were enough to win their support for the bill itself.

“The League supports these amendments, which represent good faith and responsive engagement and leaves us optimistic that remaining matters for the successful implementation of the bill and the envisioned path forward will be resolved,” the group said in a statement to lawmakers Monday morning.

The league added that some of its member towns are still concerned about methodological questions — how a town’s affordable housing obligation would be calculated, for example — and about the bill’s impact on the environment.

Though advocates that have pushed the bill accepted most amendments as a matter of compromise, they worried about changes that would reduce deed restriction terms imposed on affordable rental units from 40 years to 30 years. The shorter term would reduce New Jersey’s stock of affordable housing over time, they said.

“You get to a certain period and then it’s not affordable anymore. That really can have impacts in terms of losing the affordable housing stock that’s been created,” Gordon said. “When you lose those units, it’s very hard to replace them.

Other changes would allow age-restricted affordable housing to meet up to 30% of a town’s obligation, up from 25% in prior versions, and would create a new type of bonus credit municipalities can take to reduce how many new units they must build.

Municipalities earn one regular credit for each unit of affordable housing they build. They can earn bonus credits worth between one-half and one regular credit for certain types of affordable housing — like age-restricted housing — lowering how many units they must construct.

The amendments would allow municipalities to earn a full bonus credit for each unit of existing market-rate housing that is converted to affordable housing, as long as the municipality has a signed agreement with the building’s owner or is the building’s owner.

The bill’s travails are likely not over. The bill would create a court-run dispute resolution program, and the amendments add a provision that would require them to defend municipalities from challenges to their affordable housing plans.

“The real effect of this amendment would be to require the court to become a party to a matter under its review,” said Pamela Geller, a legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “Simply put, we cannot do this.”

Geller said Lopez had committed to removing that language, though it was still present in the bill the Assembly approved Monday.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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