A New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on affordable housing for the poor may be the final blow to Governor Chris Christie’s plan to take control of a regulatory agency and, according to critics, save land for the rich.
“The decision blocks Governor Christie’s efforts to prevent the construction of affordable homes in the state’s wealthiest communities,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, president of the affiliated Latino Action Network. “If you can build mansions in a community you can find space” for the poor.
The state high court was asked to review an appellate court’s invalidation of a new set of regulations under the Fair Housing Act. Justice Jaynee Lavecchia, writing for the court’s majority today, said the rules “are at odds with the FHA,” although the 30-year-old act “should not be viewed as a constitutional straightjacket to legislative innovation.”
The ruling gives the Council on Affordable Housing, created by the FHA, five months to devise regulations for towns to follow, said attorney Peter Reinhart, a real estate professor at Monmouth University and a former member of the council.
“Christie was trying to eliminate the council, and uncertainty was lingering until this decision,” Reinhart said. Now, possible suggested solutions could include using foreclosed properties in towns to house the poor, and new construction, he said in a phone interview.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor had no comment on the ruling.
“Assumptions used in devising a remedy in 1983 do not necessarily have the same validity today,” Lavecchia said in the ruling. “That assessment, however, is best made by the policy makers of the Legislature.”
The justice said the history of the housing litigation harkens back to a Mount Laurel case in 1975, in which “this court held that a developing municipality could not utilize its zoning power to eliminate the realistic possibility of construction of affordable low- and moderate-income housing without acting in a manner contrary to the state’s general welfare.”
“A remedy must be put in place to eliminate the limbo in which municipalities, New Jersey citizens, developers and affordable housing interest groups have lived for too long,” according to the opinion.
Christie tried to transfer duties of the council to the state Department of Community Affairs and was thwarted by state courts last year. The high court had declined to throw out a lower-court decision that Christie had no right to eliminate the council, or COAH.
At the time, the governor’s office said, “It is well known that there are many on both sides of the aisle in the Legislature who agree that COAH has been bad for New Jersey with all its onerous and ineffective demands on municipalities.” He said the plan was designed to cut costs and reduce complexity.
David Turner, a spokesman for Christie’s Democratic challenger for governor, Senator Barbara Buono from Metuchen, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on today’s decision.
The ruling was “an explicit rejection of the Christie administration’s policies on housing,” said Kevin Walsh, an attorney who argued before the Supreme Court as associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center.
“It’s going to result in more homes getting built, which is especially important after Hurricane Sandy, especially important for families that are trying to afford our state’s expensive housing market and for people like veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who need a supportive environment to live but who are too often excluded from many of the state’s wealthier communities by their zone,” Walsh said at a news conference in Trenton.
The case is In the matter of the adoption of NJAC 5:96 and 5:97 by the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, A-90/91/92/93/94 Sept. term 2010, 067126, Supreme Court of New Jersey (Trenton).
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