TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy is laying the foundation for a new approach to affordable housing after two decades without administrative clarity on New Jersey’s requirements and following a former governor who wanted to “bury” the state panel overseeing the issue.
Wrangling over affordable housing has gripped New Jersey for decades, going back to a 1975 court decision that towns couldn’t use zoning to keep out low-income residents.
The issue has pitted advocates for low- and moderate-income housing and poor residents against towns that have argued against lodging requirements in one of the country’s wealthiest states.
Murphy, a Democrat, released more than a dozen transition reports recently detailing recommendations his administration should pursue across state government, including housing. The report recommends reinstating an official to oversee housing issues.
It also — crucially, according to affordable housing advocates — called for letting a judicial process set up in 2015 under the state Supreme Court play out. Under the court’s decision, no longer would the state Council on Affordable Housing set limits for towns and instead they would reach the requirements through court-sanctioned settlements.
Those rules had not been updated since 1999, and former GOP Gov. Chris Christie was sharply critical of state-level efforts to set housing obligation limits. In 2010 said he would hold a “funeral” for the state Council on Affordable Housing and said “we’ll respectfully bury it,” arguing the state shouldn’t be in the business of telling towns how many units of low-cost housing they should have.
Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for the Fair Share Housing Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that has argued in court for more affordable housing, praised the Murphy transition report for recommending keeping the judicial process intact, adding that it has provided an orderly process for the first time in nearly two decades.
“Instead of continued gridlock in Trenton, we have shovels in the ground and houses going up to that expand opportunities for working families,” he said.
Murphy’s approach so far has signaled a change of tone compared with his immediate predecessor. That has the some town leaders disappointed.
Michael Cerra, the assistant executive director of the League of Municipalities, said the report failed to address how the state should re-engage on affordable housing beyond the court process, which he called “inefficient and ineffective.”
“How much money has been spent filing legal documents, paying attorneys, planners, engineers, et cetera?” he said.
New Jersey’s affordable housing case goes back to the 1975 Mount Laurel decision. That case made New Jersey the first state where courts declared towns couldn’t use zoning to exclude the poor. In later decisions, judges went further, ordering towns to take steps to allow the opportunity for housing for low-income people.
Eventually, the Legislature responded with the 1985 Fair Housing Act, which called for the state to issue new rules periodically laying out how many homes must be provided and giving towns options for how to do that.
The last rules that passed court muster expired in 1999. The court found the state Council on Affordable Housing has failed to implement fair new rules despite court orders to do so.
Under the 2015 ruling, the issue was taken out of the hands of the administration and handed over to lower court judges.